Tried and True: Columbus Running Company

CRC's Short North Location
Running is one of those topics where there seems to be very little middle ground. Those who have found running to be their cup of tea are pretty staunch advocates of its various benefits. Those who don't care for it generally can't comprehend what makes this activity pleasurable in the least.

I fell into running as part of what was my final serious (and thankfully successful) attempt to gain control of my slowly but surely ballooning weight issue. Running wasn't even my first choice in cardio-based exercise, but eventually I found running not only beneficial in cutting my weight (through running and diet, I figuratively became half the man I used to be weight-wise) but also a release for the day's tension. On my runs, things that were worrisome faded away and my brain was allowed to roam carefree from one thought to another. As a bonus, running provided the catalyst that allowed me to meet Mrs. 614orty-Niner - she followed a similar path in terms of using running to help her arrive at a more healthy weight, and our involvement with a running forum allowed us to meet for the first time at the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati seven years ago.

Coming from an area of the country with a fairly prominent running culture, I was pleasantly surprised to see how strong the scene is here. I found quite a few cars with those ubiquitous mileage stickers (the 13.1 half-marathon distance seems to be popular) on their back windows, and it's not too hard to find a running event around the metro area on any given weekend. Even during the bone-chilling winter days (weather that would send most Californians to their treadmills indoors,) I still always seem to spot a couple or three runners plowing along the roads during my everyday travels.

All the accessories a runner could ever need
Overall, runners are very encouraging and supportive of other runners, whether it be someone who is trying to run in their first 5-kilometer race, or accomplish  one of the crown jewel achievements a recreational runner can ever hope to obtain such as qualify for the Boston Marathon. While there are many fine groups and organizations around the Columbus metro that support and foster area runners, I wanted to highlight one that both my spouse and I have grown well-acquainted with over the years..

The Columbus Running Company (CRC) got its start in 2004 in Dublin, and has expanded over the years with locations in Pickerington, Westerville and their newest location in the Short North this year. The company has made it a priority to engage and support endeavors in their local communities via their running activities, whether it be through charity events, support of local high school track and field programs, and the hosting of and/or assistance with local race events.

In terms of the running customer, purchasing running apparel and related gear from their stores allows one to earn loyalty program points, which translate to cash discounts on future purchases. In addition, they have a running club, host regularly scheduled run groups for different levels of runners from their various locations, and offer training programs catered to your abilities and goals (my spouse consistently used their programs to successfully train for her half-marathons.)

My results for the "Run a Mile in Our Shoes" test run
Finally, special other events and clinics catered to the running public are offered throughout the year; two recent instances I found truly helpful was the "Run A Mile in Our Shoes" program, where you got to test run a variety of shoes from numerous manufacturers, and a free run clinic that offered film analysis of your stride and a good overall perspective on what runners should be looking at to make their running experience a better one.

Most importantly, my spouse and I have always found CRC to be a very inviting and friendly place, which in many ways is a reflection of the company's owners Eric, Matt and Jim. They are all very down-to-earth people who are easy to chat with about all manner of topics. Moreover, they are truly interested in making all people who come visit their stores, from the rank beginner to the experienced veteran, feel welcome. This welcoming attitude is also reflected with the store staff people we have encountered, and in our minds has provided the main impetus that has allowed Columbus Running Company to celebrate its milestone tenth anniversary this year. It seems to be a safe bet that CRC will be reaching and bypassing many more such milestones as time passes by.

Columbus Running Company
6465 Perimeter Dr (Google Maps)
Dublin, OH 43016
(614) 764-0855

1250 Hill Road N. (Google Maps)
Pickerington, OH 43147
(614) 863-4073

50 N. State Street (Google Maps)
Westerville, OH 43081
(614) 523-2377

765 N. High Street, Suite B (Short North - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 947-7717
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Presidential Pies: Bono Pizza

Entrance to Bono's Presidential Palace
I've been a huge fan of pizza since I was a kid, with my tastes evolving greatly since my childhood days, when I thought Celeste combination frozen pizzas were the best thing around.

Sadly, though, pizza has been somewhat lacking in my overall Columbus food experiences. I've learned enough to know that Columbus has its own style of pie, marked by a square shape and a thin crust, and that most styles can be found here in the metro if you look hard enough. But both I and Mrs. 614orty-Niner agree that we need to shore up our pizza exploration.

One reason for this may be our love of Bono Pizza. Their thin-crusted (our preference) pizzas with creative combos, matched with their famous "Menage a Trois" offer (any three pizzas for $25, with regular pricing at $10 per pizza) provided us great-tasting pie that would last into the next day, if our appetites weren't too ravenous. All we had to remember was to give plenty of time for our order and bring the cash and we'd be set.

When the circumstances behind Bono's relocation from their longtime Northwest Blvd haunts were announced early February, we were worried about their long-term prospects. We put in a last week before the move order to be sure we had their pizza at least one more time. I admit my talk with the owner while waiting for our pies to finish didn't ease my concerns: their new location seemed like an odd spot to have a restaurant, and the simple fact that this area had been having a tough winter in general added to my worry.

The Menage a Trois is alive and well
Forward a few months later, and yes, Bono Pizza is still alive and running. My spouse and I had had a full day sandwiched around Columbus' big Comfest celebration, and we weren't inclined to cook. As we biked back to our place, we thought of dinner options and Bono entered the thought process. Perfect! We could finish our bike home, and by the time we were showered up, the pizzas would be done, just like old times. We gave them a phone call about 15 minutes out from our house to put in our order.

Pizzas would be ready in five minutes...uh, what? We knew Bono had changed location, but this quick bake-up time was another huge change. Not expecting this revelation, I never did quite articulate the fact that we really didn't need the pizzas until 30-40 minutes later.

The most noticeable change with Bono, of course, was their new location. Presidential Drive, which is just off North Star Road between Northwest Blvd and Kinnear Road, is flanked by a sea of apartment buildings. Bono itself is located on an island of commercial spaces that don't look too much different from surrounding apartments. The courtyard which Bono is located in (the driveway leading into it had quite a few Bono-oriented lawn signs) is flanked by the sides of five separate buildings with numerous doorways, and it took me a bit to figure out which door was Bono's.

Gaming space shared by Bono and 14 Twenty Bar & Grill
Another big change is the space itself: compared to their cramped and claustrophobic old space on Northwest Blvd, the interior feels cozy yet palatial by comparison, with enough seating to handle a small group. In addition to the main dining area, Bono shares adjoining space with a local bar (14 Twenty Bar and Grill), allowing one to grab an alcoholic beverage to enjoy with your pie.

The menu and its pricing has slightly changed as well. The famous "Menage a Trois" three for $25 deal is only offered on certain days (typically Monday through Wednesday.) Also, additional "specialty" items I don't remember from the Bono's previous iteration such as salads, cheesy garlic bread and dessert pizza are available to enhance your meal.

With all that change, two important things have not. One is the cash only policy: you can bring those credit or debit cards, but only if you're going to withdraw some moola to pay for your order.

The other thing that hasn't changed is the pizza. This wood-fired delight is just as good as ever, with its crispy thin crust pockmarked by bits of char, and topped by bright tasting, fresh ingredients. We stuck with some old favorites this time around (the Cherry Bomb, the Hulk and San Rolando) and enjoyed them just as much this time as we did on the first order.

The San Rolando and the Hulk - a superhero pairing of pizza pies
It turns out that change has been good for Bono. Yes, Bono is in somewhat of an odd location, but once you've figured out how to get there, it should be as easy as (pizza) pie to regularly drop by to enjoy their pizzas. Their pies are among the best in the Columbus metro area, bar none.

Bono Pizza
1412 Presidential Drive (5th by Northwest - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43212
(614) 906-8646
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Ice Cream Chronicles (Pt. 6): The Velvet Funner-ground

Mrs. 614orty-Niner and I learned pretty early on that we're pretty good at jam-packing our itineraries when we go on trips. At times, this has led to some epic days. One day-long leg of an Oregon state trip we made a few years back covered 350 miles from Bend to Portland and back to Bend (via Salem, the state's capital.) Oh yeah, did I mention we stopped by Voodoo Donuts in downtown Portland, a brewpub in Tigard for dinner to meet up with my spouse's uncle, and sneaked in eight miles of hiking on a rainy Mount Hood to see the absolutely gorgeous Ramona Falls?

Even if future trips don't match the epic nature of that trip (thank goodness!), we've always hunted for things to do along the way for our excursions together. On a recent trip into the Cleveland area for various family and friend meetups, my spouse had suggested taking the scenic route through Holmes County to get at least a glance of this state's biggest Amish area. I was all up for that, but since we weren't going to actually stop for any significant time there (we'll save that for a later trip) we searched something else both along the way that could be a fairly quick stop.

I noticed Utica as one of the cities and that proverbial light bulb went off in my head. "Hey, dear, isn't Velvet Ice Cream up somewhere near Utica?" Sure enough, it was, and being somewhat of a last-minute get, we just simply noted their address to plug into our mobile phone GPS and had no clue about what to expect.

Evoking the past with Ye Olde Mill
As it turned out, Velvet Ice Cream's location in Utica is a blend of entertainment and history topped off by, what else, ice cream. This blend appeals to thousands of adult and children visitors yearly, and reminded me a bit of what visitors get when visiting the Jelly Belly Factory in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition, we ended up picking a momentous time for our first visit, as we got the pomp and circumstance of the 100th annversary celebration (the company was founded by Joseph Dager, a Lebanese immigrant, in 1914.)

The company, which is now run by the fourth generation of the Dager family, bought the Ye Olde Mill property in 1960. After a fire hit the third construct of the mill in 1986, Velvet found it could not salvage that building and rebuilt the structure to what visitors to the site see today.

Several exhibits can be found on the property. In the middle of the parking lot, a barn-like structure holds the Viewing Gallery, with benched seating (for what I imagine are more formal organized tour groups,) a television playing pre-recorded snippets of the company's history and various company-oriented product exhibits. When we dropped by, a table with what looked to be home-baked goods was set up next to the building manned by Amish vendors.

Everything you wanted to know about the company, catered to all ages
Elsewhere, the Ye Olde Mill Museum has a Buckeye tree grove surrounded by a grassy area and small pond for people, allowing weary adults to sit back and let their children run around and burn off some calories. In addition, various ice cream manufacturing artifacts and equipment from the historic mill can be found throughout the property both inside and outside the main building. A collection of mill equipment can be found also in the Milling Museum space nearby the milling wheel. The building section closest to the main road are Velvet's production facilities, where one can grab a glance at some of the modern equipment used to produce ice cream behind windows (tours are offered but availability by day varies; please call ahead to inquire.) Numerous factoids and other information are found at each station, so it's worth it to slow down and take a read to digest it all.

The production facility, plus a couple of company informational postings
The culinary center of Velvet's complex is the ice cream parlor, which essentially shares the same space as the facility's Wheel Room Restaurant. The latter offers a select menu of soups, salads and sandwiches at what seem to be reasonable prices (nothing over $9) plus the whole gamut of ice cream and related novelties from its parlor. As for us, though, there was only one thing on our mind: the ice cream and choosing from the more than 40 flavors available.

Numerous flavors; PLENTY of ice cream
As we did not know Velvet's history too well, we were nicely surprised by the more unique flavors mixed in with the classics. With that in mind, my spouse went with the Honey Caramel and I went for a two scoop bowl of their Peach Cobbler and a variation of what's become a standard for me on these sampling, their Southern Butter Pecan, which is most likely their Bourbon Pecan under a different name.

Perhaps we had gone in with a little bit of prejudice that since this was more of a mass-marketed brand of ice cream, they could not be as good as some of the smaller gourmet ice cream producers that we have encountered. In terms of this visit, we got our money's worth both in terms of quantity (yes, that is their "two scoops") and the ice cream holds it own in terms of quality. Their bourbon-laced take on butter pecan was probably the our favorite out of our sampled three flavors.

But then again, perhaps this quote we found prominently displayed on the Viewing Gallery building speaks to the fact that we shouldn't have been surprised at all.

Velvet Ice Cream is pretty darn good, and it is better than a few others that I've tried. I'd probably add a corollary to this quote as well: figuring out which ice cream is better than others is about as good as it gets.

Velvet Ice Cream
Ye Olde Mill
11324 Mt Vernon Rd (Google Maps)
Utica, OH 43080
(740) 892-3921
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Tried and True: Kolache Republic

In life, one eventually learns that some things just fall into place by happenstance. In relation to Mrs. 614orty-Niner and I, Kolache Republic has earned a special distinction through that happenstance: they have become our unofficial official starting point for long road trips to the south or multiple-event days around town.

For the uninitiated, kolaches are a pastry made by rimming a dollop of filling (traditionally fruit) with a puffy dough and baking them until golden brown. Imported into this country by Eastern European immigrants, they have become regionally popular in certain regions of the country, including Texas. Coincidentally, it was in Texas (Houston, specifically) where the Mrs. and I first got to sample this toothsome treat, though at vastly different times in our lives.

Kolache Republic has both sweet and savory pastries available for both breakfast and lunch, which includes specials that expand beyond traditional fillings. These daily offerings such as pulled pork, chicken cordon bleu and sloppy joe tend to sell out quickly.

We have always taken a combination of both sweet and savory for our meals there (my spouse's personal favorite is the apricot, while I am a sucker for poppyseed pastries; the sausage and jalapeƱo kolache is one of the few items we'd both order during the same visit.) Pair that with a coffee (the restaurant uses Cafe Brioso, one of Columbus' best roasters) and you have a pretty nice culinary combination to start your day.

One of our savory/sweet combos...and did I mention I love poppyseeds?
The restaurant itself is a quaint space with limited indoor and outdoor seating that is more suited to takeout orders (large orders and catering are also available with advanced notice); however, we've never had problems getting a seat during our visits. Service has always been top-notch for us, and we've found the restaurant's co-owners (Rick, Dusty and Doug) a pleasure to talk with and get to know a bit whenever we've stopped by.

We recently learned of Kolache Republic's one-year anniversary at their brick and mortar location via a congratulatory Tweet from one of Columbus' pre-eminent bloggers (Nick Dekker of Breakfast with Nick.) The Mrs. and I were a little surprised that they had only been there for a year, but then we realized that Kolache Republic has been plying their trade since 2011 as a food cart at various festivals and community events.

Let us echo those sentiments: happy first year anniversary kudos to you folks at Kolache Republic at your current digs, and we wish you continued success into the future. And yes, we look forward to starting more of our big days down the road with your kolaches.

One of my favorite Cbus restaurant logos
Kolache Republic
730 S. High Street (Brewery District - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43206
(614) 928-3151
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Ice Cream Chronicles (Pt. 5): No Faking It at Johnson's

I admit my first reaction when I first saw the label for Johnson's ice cream pints on local supermarket freezer shelves was a bit of a joking one. I mean, does anyone really sell fake ice cream?

But then I thought more seriously about their label and the use of the word "real." I know back when they were established in 1950, the word was most likely meant as a reassurance to the consumer. This was the real deal product, produced in-house and fresh for your consumption.

But with the arrival of Graeter's to the Columbus area in the late 1980s, and the arrival of Jeni's two decades later, and just through more sheer familiarity with those two ice cream giants, this word gained a bit of a dare aspect. "Hey, give us a shot! We've got a fine product ourselves," was what repeated inside my mind.

Friendly faces at the counter
This was a "challenge" that I was more than happy to accept.

Main Street through downtown Bexley is something of an ice cream lover's mini-mecca, with Jeni's, Graeter's and Johnson's in very close proximity to each other. Their building, a local landmark, has been expanded and spruced up a few times since their original 15' x 20' space opened for business. Even with those remodels though, one never loses the sense that Johnson's was born in a bygone era. I could imagine that someone who went to Johnson's as a child would feel the space is just as welcoming now as a senior citizen.

Johnson's has all the traditional novelty items available (cakes, pies, sundaes and even buckeyes) to please people of all ages; their flavors also tend toward the traditional favorites. However, Johnson's ties with local vendors was brought to the fore recently with their release of their special "Columbus Collection" of flavors, featuring products from local stalwarts like Crimson Cup Coffee, Sugardaddy's Sumptious Sweeties, Krema Nut and Just Pies.

Real Ice Cream? Check and Check
I went for two scoops ($4) of flavors I know I'd enjoy as well as use for comparison. In general, I'd label Johnson's ice cream as pretty traditional in terms of mouthfeel, with just a hint of the denseness that Graeter's puts into their product. Johnson's Buckeye Blitz has been my favorite version of such so far, with a bright creamy peanut butter base and chunks of chocolate scattered throughout. Their butter pecan was also a no-complaint flavor for me, though I did like Graeter's version slightly better.

The Deli Menu at Johnson's
Prices seem reasonable all around, even extending to things like their T-shirts ($12.95) and their deli items ($7 or less,) an option not offered by their frozen confection competitors that I've visited. The walls also detailed their own special ice cream eating challenge, which involved four pounds total of ice cream and assorted toppings; those who beat the current time by themselves would get all that sugary dairy goodness for free.

To be truthful, I didn't have any doubts about the realness of Johnson's ice cream going into this tasting. I think the "real" in the name now points to my gut feeling after walking out. This is the neighborhood place that did good, has stood the test of time and continues to fit comfortably in your hand like a waffle cone freshly filled with two scoops of your favorite flavor.

Johnson's Real Ice Cream
2728 E Main St (Google Maps)
Bexley, OH 43209
(614) 231-0014
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A League of Our Own: Hanging with the Clippers

Harold Cooper's Statue
While I love a good Major League Baseball game (especially when it involves the team I grew up with, the San Francisco Giants,) I find games at the minor league level as a whole much more entertaining. The "everything but the kitchen sink" mantra rules here as fan attendance is central for lower-level professional teams in terms of team value and the ability to pay the bills.

The smaller size of these ballparks is a bonus as well; one typically never feels too claustrophobic when the park is packed to the rafters, nor too isolated when a sparser crowd is in house. Finally, the motif of a baseball game in just about any format fits that uncomplicated summer task of lazing away in the day's warmth for a few hours with your favorite food and beverage at the ready.

While I have already attended a minor league game already last year in Ohio courtesy of the Akron Rubberducks (who were then known as the Aeros,) my spouse and I had never dropped in together on a home game for Columbus' very own Clippers until earlier this month during the Independence Day holiday weekend.

Huntington Park, home of the Columbus Clippers, reminds me a lot of another capital city's home park - Raley Field in Sacramento, California. Unlike Raley Field, Huntington Park has some of the outdoor touches of the San Francisco Giants' own AT&T Park, including the prominent brick structures and the little covey areas where fans can sneak a free peek at the game. The statue of Harold Cooper at the front gate, considered the patriarch of Columbus baseball, also reminded me of the quartet of statues surrounding my former home ballpark.

Something that was pleasantly NOT like the Bay Area was the parking price - we were quite happy when we only had to fork over $5 for a nearby parking garage (I paid five times as much for parking at the last Giants game I was able to catch.)

With the Clippers a Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, their games against their intrastate rival Toledo Mud Hens (affiliate of the Indians' cross-border divisional rival Detroit Tigers) tend to be more zesty than a typical league game. What had been a game that still had seat tickets available on Friday became a standing-room only affair by the time we got pay our admission the next day. These standing room only tickets ($7 each) proved to be a fairly nice buy however as there are plenty of walls, picnic benches and counters around the ballpark to set up camp. If one chose, more standing and seating areas were available beyond the left field stands if you decided some munchies at Bob Evans or Roosters were in the cards for you.

Before the ballgame started, the owner of the Clippers came onto the field to announce that since the Clippers were actually in town for the Independence Day holiday weekend for the first time, they were using the occasion to honor military servicemen and women from around the area. But as is the minor league baseball way of doing things, the first part of the kitchen sink was thrown in: WWE Wrestling icon Sergeant Slaughter (himself a former Marine and someone my siblings and I watched as kids) was introduced to the crowd first and would be available to sign autographs during the game. In addition, all fans received packages of baseball cards depicting many of those military service personnel introduced before the first pitch (a truly cool gesture.)

After these personnel were brought out and introduced (with nice ovations) to the crowd, another part of the sink came in the form of military paratroopers. Representing each service branch, the paratroopers launched themselves from a plane above, tantalizingly circled overhead for a couple minutes, and then glided individually onto the field. The final paratrooper ended the show perfectly by escorting the American flag proudly down against the backdrop of a setting sun.

Old Glory flies proudly into the stadium
We had had a late lunch before the ballgame, so as it turns out we did not partake of the food. We did see that besides the previously mentioned Bob Evans and Roosters, other Columbus institutions like City Barbecue and Donato's have food stands along with the stadium-based vendors. The prices seemed to be in the reasonable range from my quick glance of the boards with all the usual and one not too usual (couscous with veggies!) menu items.

The warm day did make me and the Mrs. thirsty for some locally-produced brew; however, the only option we were able to locate was a stand with a couple of Columbus Brewing handles. $9 for a large seemed to be a tad steep, but we weren't going to settle for anything less this evening and were happy with cups of their IPA and Summer Teeth seasonal.

Local food and beverage options can be found throughout the park
The game itself was a pretty exciting back and forth affair, but it really was just part of a larger show. Along with the military personnel tributes, there were people anticipating the fireworks at the end of the game plus the numerous in-between inning contests to get the crowd involved. Deep down, I really got the sense that people were out here because it was simply a gorgeous summer evening, and the ballpark was the perfect place to spend that time with your friends and family.

It wouldn't be a baseball game without the kids...
By the end, the proverbial kitchen sink for many of us was full. Along with a handshake and an autograph from Sgt. Slaughter (I couldn't resist) and the giveaway cards, everyone received a couple of coupons for a free games at a local bowling alley (as a result of a Clippers' pitcher striking out the side in an inning) and a pretty nice fireworks show to close it down. 

Suffice it to say, Mrs. 614orty-Niner and I had a really nice time at the ballpark, and we'll definitely be out there again. Perhaps these (paraphrased) words from a somewhat famous song by Chicago summarized our day there the best:

Saturday in the park
I know it was the Fifth of July
People reaching, people touching
A real celebration
Awaited for us all

Columbus Clippers
Triple-A minor league franchise of the Cleveland Indians
Home games at Huntington Park
330 Huntington Park Lane (Arena District - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43215
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Biking and Brunching: South of Lane

This year, Mrs. 614orty-Niner and I finally dove in and made a small investment in some new bicycles. We had come across each other's paths as a result of another fitness activity as avid runners. These days, with our different schedules, run paces and other commitments, we figured biking would be a terrific way to be active together. In addition, the Columbus metro area continues to grow more bicycle-friendly, with a fairly solid bike infrastructure in place as well as more improvements on the way. These improvements include the recent $1.25 million dollar grant to the new CoGo Bike Share program from Medical Mutual and the soon-to-be-completed connector that will make the Alum Creek trail continuous from Westerville to the Blacklick Creek Trail to the south.

One of the additional bonuses, other than the calories burned in the biking, is the opportunity to bike to various eateries around the area for a tasty breakfast or brunch together. On one recent jaunt, we decided to revisit a little tony place in Upper Arlington that combines antiques and scrumptious breakfasts: South of Lane.

Like the first time we visited, South of Lane is absolutely suited for bicyclists cruising in on a bike, or families from the neighborhood toting their kids and/or dogs alongside due to its outdoor seating (indoor seating is also available for those who desire it.) We found all these aspects on our this visit, along with other slices of the local Upper Arlington population on this stopover, just like we had on our first meal here. Also similar to the first visit, the interior's unique blend of displayed antiques, patron seating, and open kitchen (the view of which seems to make you hungrier as you wait in line to order your food) appeared not to have changed too much either.

The kitchen is visible to all in this cozy interior
The menu had some new additions since we had last visited but for the most part is concentrated on a few select variants on waffles, french toast and omelets for breakfast (additional items like salads, sandwiches and soups are available for lunch.) One constant we again appreciated was their continued use of Thunderkiss Coffee Roasters to make their java. As we had just put in a good solid workout already and Thunderkiss' iced coffee is some of the best in the area, it was a no-doubter what we were ordering for our morning caffeine.

Mrs. 614orty-Niner ordered something that I had ordered on the first visit: the PB2 is a homemade waffle sprinkled with powdered sugar, folded over peanut butter and bacon, with strawberries for garnish. Like me, the Mrs. found this seemingly simple production completely tasty and filling.

The PB2 - no words needed for this delicious creation
As much as I enjoyed the PB2 on my first visit, the Mrs. "won" the menu battle that time when she ordered absolutely delectable coconut french toast. As that was not on the menu this time, I went with a newer offering: the bourbon pecan french toast.

Oh, my! Look at those pecans...
This round went to me in terms of menu selection. This french toast, surrounded by chunks of pecans, laced with a caramelly bourbon flavor, and garnished with bananas, tasted like decadence...and it came with bacon to boot! It actually came with a flask of syrup, which was completely unneeded; I gladly donated to the Mrs. so she could add some additional maple sweetness to her plate.

Our service was a little on the slow side on both visits for entirely different reasons (the first visit was simple bad timing with a large group of bicyclists arriving just before we got there, while this visit was a case of the restaurant being short-staffed.) But this is the type of place where you really don't seem to mind slow service so much. South of Lane is the type of place that almost invites you to ease back, slow down, take in the environs and enjoy your surrounding company.

On this visit, one precocious young lad easily wiled away the wait time by providing all the outdoor patrons a neat little display of wonderment. He shuffled back and forth between his family's dog and a neighbor's mutt, pointing out to his parents and to everyone else, to his complete amazement, that dogs could actually be different in so many ways.

South of Lane is just a little different too...and that is a good thing.

South of Lane
1987 Guilford Rd (Google Maps)
Upper Arlington, OH
(614) 586-2233
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The Ice Cream Chronicles (Pt. 4): Bakdashery

The countries of the Middle East have often made world headlines over the past several decades, and usually it has not been for pleasant reasons. Political, religious, factional and nationalistic differences from countries in and out of the region have led to numerous violent outbreaks, with the re-igniting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the latest in this long line of strife.

Prior to this, Syria had been at the forefront of these headlines not too long ago, when the region-wide "Arab Spring" movement turned into a bitter civil war between groups of rebels and the long-standing ruling government. This conflict, now more than three years running, has caused many people to flee the country for neighboring countries such as Egypt and Jordan.

In an interesting twist, I read recently that the well-renowned ice creamery in Damascus, Bakdash, has become a victim of the civil war in its own right. As detailed in this NPR story, Bakdash has opened up a new location in Amman, Jordan due to the decline in business in Syria and the influx of refugees into Jordan. Upon learning of this story, I feel even more fortunate now that I was able to sample some of their uniquely crafted treats during a far more peaceful time during a work detail Damascus several years ago.

Damascus, said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (there is some debate about that distinction), turned out to be a fascinating city where ancient and modern, Arab and Western, rich and poor, and other stark contrasts could be found almost every minute if one looked hard enough. This stark contrast also translated to the food in a more pronounced manner. Anything that tended to mimic Western-styled themes or concepts was often times odd at best and simply not enjoyable at worst (yes, I did try a local version of the Skyline Chili Coney Dog to my chagrin.) If you stuck with the local food, you were almost guaranteed to have a good to great meal.

One of my personal favorite trips was when the group decided to head into the older part of town to Souk Al-Hamidiyeh, typically the busiest market in the city due to its tourist attraction status. This market has just about everything the shopper could want, both local and visitor. Spices and other food basics, home furnishings, toys, sweets, clothing - you name it, you'll find it somewhere within this market's vast expanse. Using the famed western entrance, you are greeted with a walkway covered with an iron roof that is riddled with bullet-holes from early 20th century conflicts. It is here where Bakdash has plied its craft making its ice cream (or, as the locals call it, booza) since 1895.

Prior to the trip, my research revealed this was one of those must-visit places. Indeed, no matter when we dropped by the market, there seemed to be a line extending from inside. As it turned out, the spectacle created by the crowds milling inside and around the store along with the employees plying their craft was as much of an attraction as much as the ice cream itself.

One man churned/pounded the ice cream (made up mainly of whole milk, sugar, mastic and orchid flour) in a cooled chamber with a large wooden.  When it had reached the right consistency, he wedged the ice cream from the bottom and handed the mass over to another worker. This worker then pulled chunks of this glob out and rolled them in pistachios. Other workers would assist in the placing the ice cream into bowls and adding other toppings as requested as customers queued by. The standard order costed about $1 at the time, with add-ons available for additional cost.

Upon first look, my instinct upon seeing it was to think vanilla, but that was nowhere in the smell or flavor profile. Indeed, the base ice cream was a lot like a slow-to-melt ice milk, with a unique flavor profile and a flowery scent. Texture-wise, it was chewy and gooey like a warmed up taffy or thick melted cheese. The freshly chopped pistachios provided the dominant and tasty flavor.

Bakdash's ice cream ranks as my most unique foray into the ice cream world.  While the ice cream may not be my most favorite taste or texture-wise when compared to . However, it remains one of my most memorable, representative of the time where I got to indulge in another area of the world's rich culinary traditions.

(Those who would like to see the process used at Bakdash to produce their unique ice cream can reference this video taken at their new location in Amman, Jordan.) 

Bakdash Ice Cream Parlor
Souq Al-Hamidiyeh
Damascus, Syria

Al Madeenah Al munawwarah Street
Amman, Jordan

Tried and True: The Book Loft of German Village

The bargain book tables near the front entrance
The demise of the brick and mortar bookstore has been a constant theme for the past two decades or so, from the big guys (Borders, who declared bankruptcy in 2011; Barnes & Noble are going through their own store closures) to their smaller, independent counterparts (I recall sadly when Stacey's Bookstore on Market St. In San Francisco closed its doors in 2009 after 85 years of operation.)

I may eventually buy one of those e-reader devices one of these days, but for me there's nothing like the feel of a book in your hands.  Maybe it goes back to my younger days when I could hang out at the school's library and grab whatever book caught my attention on the shelves.  Some days, I felt like I could perch myself at a table and read books and magazines until they kicked me out of the building.

If I didn't have to work for a living and had nothing else better to do here in Columbus, I'd might hang out all day at this town's treasure of a bookstore: The Book Loft of German Village.

No time for acrophobia now...
Mrs. 614orty-Niner introduced me to this place fairly early on while we were still long-distance dating. During that first visit, and every time since, I walk by folks perched around and "hanging out" with their preferred literature of the day. As this place purposefully does not have free wi-fi, the encouragement is there to put away what most people think of now as a mobile informational device and replace it with the old-school version of the concept. And The Book Loft has plenty of examples of the latter within their 32 rooms.

The interior of the Book Loft, cobbled together from a series of pre-Civil War era buildings that included a saloon and nickelodeon cinema, sets the right mood to get lost in your reading material.  One could find a map or directory to determine where things are, but I prefer to go in blind and (re-)figure out where things are:

In case you get lost...but I think it's more fun to get lost at the Book Loft myself
In many ways, the space reminds me of my days when I lived with my grandparents' house back in San Francisco in the 1970s. I found all sorts of new books and other reading materials laying around that kept my knowledge-seeking brain quite sated. I remember one of my most favorite finds was a little book telling the stories of some of the U.S.A.'s great Summer Olympics athletes like sprinter Wilma Rudolph, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and Ohio State University's very own Jerry Lucas.  At The Book Loft, reading material abounds as well as other products that will awaken and please the minds of both child and adult alike.

Another aspect of living at my grandparents' house that fascinated me as a kid was the little nooks, crannies, and "secret" rooms within, as well as the indoor and outdoor stairways.  Even when I knew where most everything was, I would somehow still be surprised by discovering something I hadn't noticed before in their house. The Book Loft's interior encourages that spirit of discovery in all its patrons:

Move on, or hang out? Hmmm...
Suffice it to say, The Book Loft really brings the kid out in me, and reminds me of the sanctuary of sorts I always was able to find as a younger lad in the school or neighborhood library. Maybe one of these days, the inexorable march of technological progress may send the traditional bookstore as a whole the way of the dinosaur. But until that day, I will continue to take advantage of the opportunity to step inside these doors as often as I can and completely lose myself.

The Book Loft of German Village
631 South 3rd St. (German Village - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43206
(614) 464-1774
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Mini-Dipping: Downsized Doughnuts by the Dozen

Freshly fried-up doughnuts within the reaches of Downtown Columbus is a fairly limited venture. Tim Horton's locations are found at the corner of Broad & High and next to Nationwide Arena, and those who have a later start date to their workday can drop by The Hills Market downtown and pick up the unique flavor combinations of Destination Donuts. The best bet for many, especially those who drive into work, is to pick up a dozen or two donuts from the numerous doughnut shops scattered throughout the Columbus metro.

For a couple months this year, I had the chance to sample some of the smaller but no less tasty fried creations by some relative newcomers to the local food scene. One newcomer is part of a movement that has become a topic of national debate, while the other mirrors a more traditional but oft-told tale.

The benefits of a Gluten-Free (GF) diet has recently come to the forefront of the national conscious, as exampled in this Wall Street Journal article. Amidst this debate comes Lily's Mini Delights, which touts the GF-status of their donuts proudly on their cutely designed cart. In the latter category, we have Mauger's Mini Donuts with their more traditional mini-doughnuts. As detailed in this Pearl Market blog post, the two retired owners of this food stand started this venture as a fun way to stay active in their community.

Both Lily's and Mauger's use essentially the same mini-donut making equipment and offer a sugar/cinnamon mix as their standard doughnut topping. The only real difference at first glance, other than the price (Lily's is typically $1 more per dozen than Mauger's doughnuts), is the gluten-free nature of Lily's offerings.

Donut machine in action, plus Lily's and Mauger's Minis.
Well, the proof of the pudding is in the taste and texture - how do they rate?

First, we'll start with Mauger's version. Their mini-doughnuts are fried up nicely, with a light brown exterior with easily distinguishable holes, a soft and pliable structure, and a light and airy texture inside.

In contrast, Lily's fried treats are more compact and rough-hewn at first glance. The person manning Lily's cart said some of their donuts need some added fryer time; this led to a slightly darker and crispier exterior for some of my doughnuts (an aspect I ended up not minding at all.) The inside texture was also definitely different, something of a cross between a Hostess Crumb Donette and a freshly-fried up churro. The doughnut was also quite dense - I started feeling full after after three-fourths of my bag was finished.

As far as taste, I don't think there was too much different between the two. Neither doughnut tasted greasy or showed any signs of being fried in older oil. And the cinnamon-sugar blend works perfectly well for both of these doughnuts, though other options are available.

Verdict? Traditionalists will probably lean toward Mauger's mini-doughnut, but I believe Lily's has a perfectly pleasant sweet treat themselves. If you see them around your local farmers market or festival, order up a bag, and share them with a friend. I bet that makes both your days just that much more happier.

(Note: I sampled these donuts when they were regular vendors at The Pearl Market in Downtown Columbus.)

Mauger's Mini-Donuts
Future scheduled appearances include The Canal Winchester Blues & Ribfest and Columbus Oktoberfest

Lily's Mini Delights
Future scheduled appearances include Easton Mall Farmers Market and the Franklin Park Conservatory Farmers Market

2017 Update: Lily's Mini Delights appears to have gone kaput; their last Facebook activity was recorded at the end of 2015. However, Mauger's Mini-Donuts keeps frying away - for further updates on their latest events, please consult their Facebook page.

The Ice Cream Chronicles (Pt. 3): A Hard Road to Mardi Gras

The childhood ice cream palace of my dreams (and is still something I miss greatly now) is Mitchell's Ice Cream, at the edge of the Mission District in San Francisco.  What made it stand out in my mind from other ice cream places was their incorporation of fruits and flavors of the Philippines.  Their mango flavor, introduced in the 1960's, quickly became and currently remains their most popular flavor.  Other flavors such as buko (young coconut), macapuno (coconut sport), langka (jackfruit) and my all time favorite ever, ube (purple yam) make Mitchell's a must-stopover when I'm in that part of the city even now.

Forward to late last year.  While driving on the very northern reaches of Columbus proper on Smoky Row Road, I spotted in passing a somewhat colorful sign off in the distance in an otherwise unremarkable small strip mall along Hard Road.  When I saw "Mardi Gras" on the sign, I figured it might be some party supply store or something similar.

I didn't think too much about it again until I happened to drive through that area a few days later and spotted it from afar. Curiosity got the best of me this time and I decided to look it up on the Internet.

Okay, ice cream...with VERY interesting Indian flavors?  I tell my spouse and she agrees - we'll need to make a visit to check it out.  Sounds good - mark it down for future reference...

Fast forward to a few weeks back, after a hot and sweaty bike ride with my spouse in the Westerville area. My spouse makes a suggestion that just reinforces the numerous reasons why I traveled all this way from the West Coast to marry her - "Hey, why don't we go try Mardi Gras since we'll be near there?"

The colorful sign which initially caught my attention may be the most visually attention-grabbing thing about the shop.  The interior is retro in that it the decor remains rooted in the late 1980s/early 1990s, One side of the room sports blue feather-like motif wall paper, an impossible to miss dry-erase marker board and slightly misaligned rows full of smiling customer photos. On the other side, a marble-like surface provides the backdrop for menu boards that might just be the original signage from when the shop opened its doors to the public..

But then again, one really shouldn't expect to see an immaculately manicured space here; if you want the modern, clean touches of a Jeni's or a Graeter's, don't stop by here.  Instead, it is the flavors scribbled on their large dry-erase board that should bring you here, along with a willingness to engage in a little international culinary travel.  My spouse and I had our boarding passes; now came the (happily-accepted) challenge of choosing our ice cream flavors.

After samplers of the Fire and Ice (no kidding - this one has some serious burn) and the Anjeer (fig), my spouse stuck with one adult-sized scoop ($2.99) of the latter. As it turned out, the Anjeer was perhaps too subtle as a whole; little of the fig flavor infused into the ice cream base in comparison with the actual chunks of the fig fruit scattered within.

As for me, I sampled the papaya (probably one my choices for a return visit) and custard apple, then just decided to dive in with the International Trio Sampler ($8; three kid-sized scoops of any of Mardi Gras' international flavors.)

One definite for me was the mango, which was the lone flavor that I could give a one-on-one comparison with my childhood favorite Mitchell's version. I went blind and threw in the Chickoo (made of Sapodilla fruit native to the tropical regions in North and South America and brought over to Asia during the Spanish colonization) and Kesar Pista (pistachio, almond with saffron spice with just a hint of cardamom) just out of sheer intrigue.

I sampled the mango first; compared to Mitchell's version, this scoop had a lot lighter mouthfeel (Mitchell's uses a cream with a very high butterfat (16%) content) and a bit more tang, akin to a mango lassi.  I liked it well enough on its own right. But my favorites were my other two choices, and even now I can't pick a favorite (my spouse slightly favored the Kesar Pista, but only by the tiniest of margins.)  The Chickoo had a simple but uniquely tasty flavor profile, punctuated by crunchy/grainy bits of the fruit itself. Meanwhile, the Kesar Pista gave everything that the description promised, but with no flavor overwhelming the other. This allowed you to focus on each individual flavor or see how they played together on each spoonful.

All typical ice cream accoutrements (sundaes, sprinkles, cones, etc.) are available as well as some interesting looking cakes with and without ice cream.  Pints, quarts and gallons of their ice cream are also available for purchase, with occasional buy one or buy three/get one free notifications posted on their Facebook page.

When considering the whole experience, some may balk at the Jeni's-esque pricing here for the ice cream scoops ($2.99 for the first adult-sized scoop, $2.75 for each additional scoop; kid-sized scoops follow a similar pricing structure at $2.65 first/$2.25 additional.)   But based on our first tasting experience, it's easy to tell that the owners here put as much love and care into their unique flavors as Ms. Bauer does with hers. And the numerous pictures of happy customers on the wall here say that not a lot of other people seem to mind the pricing either.

Mardi Gras Homemade Ice Cream
1947 Hard Road (Northwest Columbus - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43235
(614) 766-2020
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Buckeye Firsts: Putting in at Put-in-Bay

Go figure - my first encounter with the town of Put-in-Bay, Ohio, was smack dab in the middle of California gold country in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 2010.

Truth be told, I had neither a clue exactly where the unusually-named town was in the Buckeye state (I knew it was somewhere around Lake Erie) or what made it particularly special when my spouse (then girlfriend) noticed this flag for Frosty Bar proudly posted in the gift shop at Mercer Caverns in Murphys, CA.  I learned that Put-In-Bay was a popular summer destination and recreation spot for the locals located on South Bass Island on Lake Erie, but didn't learn too much more about the place until my spouse guided me for a visit there three years ago this July in what was my first big Ohio-based excursion.

Before we made the trip over to Put-in-Bay, we took a side trip over to Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Built in 1822, this lighthouse has a history that mirrors most of the lighthouses my spouse and I have visited, related to improvements in technology and transfers over the years from one agency to another. However, each of these unique landmarks spins its own intriguing storylines as time wends forward, and this is no different here at Marblehead. The small fee ($2 per person at the time) we paid to access the top is worth it, if only to get the unique panoramic view that all lighthouses are designed to gather. From our vantage point, we were easily able to see the various Lake Erie islands as well as monoliths of speed that are the roller coasters of Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky.

For those who don't own their own marine transport, the only way to get over to Put-in-Bay is by way of ferry.  Jet Express offers the faster method of transport in the form of catamarans with water jet engines, and its port on the island is closer to the downtown area.  However, since we were in no particular hurry to get over to the island or the downtown, we chose the more leisurely transport offered by Miller Ferry.  Aside from the cheaper fares (roughly half the cost of their competitors), they offer automobiles the chance to get on the island and allow people to bring their bikes along (for an additional fee.)

Once on the island, we strolled along the roads heading to downtown and I noticed one thing fairly quickly: Put-in-Bay knows what pays the bills (tourism) and there are plenty of opportunities for the city's visitors to separate themselves from their cash.  Bi-plane and helicopter rides, laser tag, golf (both the putt-putt and regular variety), bike rentals, museums, caves, historic buildings - you name it, this place probably has it somewhere.

We targeted the basics on this visit.  My spouse (then-girlfriend) made sure I knocked out two Ohio culinary staples during our tour of the city. Having lived in California (and within stone's throw of the big wine producers), I knew that the Golden State had little in the way of wines produced by native North American sweet grape varietals such as Niagara and Catawba. Heineman's Winery, established in 1888, offers a rounded representation of what's out there in terms of Ohio wines for a casual wine fan and/or newcomer like me.  The tour ($7 these days) itself also proved fairly decent and included the Crystal Cave, where one could view the world's largest geode. My spouse and I tried a sampling of their offerings at $2 per plastic cup. While I have gone on to sample better versions of these varietals as time has gone on, at the time, these sweet wines proved refreshing on what was a very warm day.

With no real food to speak of at the winery other than a cheese plate, we moved on into downtown to find something to eat. Unlike typical trips where we suss out good eats beforehand, we were here to seek out the second basic on the list: my first sampling of walleye and perch.  After wandering from place to place, we found what we were seeking at The Boardwalk.  Essentially, this restaurant acts as one huge concession stand on the Main Deck with three different options. Meanwhile, the Upper Deck is where you can receive more of a sit-down-style service, and then there's Rita's Cantina, which essentially acts as the restaurant's bar and general hangout area.  We stuck with the Fish Shak on the Main Deck for what seemed to be a slightly high-priced platter each of your basic fried walleye and perch, along with fries and onion rings.  Nothing spectacular about either preparation, which in this case provided the perfect neutral setting for my fish-tasting battle.  In the end, I preferred the walleye just a wee bit more, but would not turn down a good perch dish if I was in a seafood mood.

Finally, we traveled down to see Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial.  Originally built to commemorate Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's naval victory during the War of 1812, the memorial now stands as a symbol of the peace between the United States, Canada and Great Britain.  While we could not not go to the top of the memorial tower (one of the tallest within the continental United States) at that time due to ongoing construction, the live demonstrations (including firing of a cannon,) the historical artifacts and information within the visitor center, and the ample greenspace to amble around made this historical site well worth the visit.

On the ferry ride home, I remember sitting with an arm around my future spouse, breeze in our faces as our transport lumbered toward the mainland.  As I glanced over the water, the sun starting to set on the horizon from where I had traveled, I contemplated this first big travel excursion within this state and what I had with going with this then long-distance relationship and confirmed what I probably already knew deeper down.

Ohio as a new home?  Yeah, I can see that happening.  No problem at all...

Marblehead Lighthouse State Park
110 Lighthouse Dr (Google Maps)
Marblehead, OH 43440
(419) 734-4424

Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial
93 Delaware Ave (Google Maps)
Put-In-Bay, OH 43456
(419) 285-2184

Heineman's Winery
978 Catawba Ave (Google Maps)
Put-In-Bay, OH 43456
(419) 285-2811

The Boardwalk
341 Bayview Ave (Google Maps)
Put-in-Bay, OH 43456
(419) 285-3695