A couple of months after my move to Ohio, I was asked how I was dealing with the Buckeye State's winter. At that time, the winter had been something of a mild one, with little in the way of either snow or single-digit temperatures (naturally, those events occurred on the days when I was unloading my stuff from my shipment pod AND the day we moved our belongings into a bigger place.)

A friend of my wife told me then: "Oh, noooo, this doesn't count. You really haven't experienced an Ohio winter yet."

Well, two solidly cold winters (well, one solidly cold one plus a solidly cold February) have arrived since that fateful statement, and I believe they have had quite a profound effect on the logical portion of my brain. I find myself saying some rather weird things nowadays. To wit:

"Walking the snowy sidewalk with regular work shoes? Yes! I love me a challenge!"

"Big snowflakes! Yeah, none of that pixie dust! 
C'mon, Mother your worst!"

"Thank goodness it's only single-digit negative wind chills this morning."

"Hmmm, reminds me of an ice pizza...mmmm, pizza."

"You know, I actually prefer this to San Francisco freeways at rush hour."

In all seriousness, Ohio winters have bolstered my cold-weather tolerances pretty well, from the negative-temperature wind chills to the sometimes treacherous trek to your car or back home due to ice and snow. The bonus part is I do get some beautiful sights that I just couldn't get in the Bay Area proper such as a frozen fountain at Goodale Park.

With that said, my spouse and I, and probably most Ohioans will agree: the quicker winter gets its ass out here, the better. Bring on spring!

One Line Leads To Another: One Line Coffee/River Road Coffeehouse

The specially-roasted coffees of One Line Coffees provide the uniting factor
for co-founders Mark and Dave Forman's various coffee ventures.
At first glance, a compact, sleek, brick-lined space in Columbus' stylish Short North would not have too much in common with the rustic spaciousness of a former farmhouse in predominantly rural Licking County. But while the spaces may reflect contrasting motifs, the product they sell within it - the carefully sourced and finely roasted coffees of One Line Coffee - unites coffee lovers of the communities that live around these locations.

Father-and-son team Mark and Dave Forman have been grinding in the coffee business in the Central Ohio region for over a decade, and their passion for their craft is undeniable. After opening up their first stores in 2003 and using coffee from various local coffee roasters, the Formans started asking themselves deeper questions about the coffee they were serving, from its origins, the nature of coffee community as a whole, and eventually serving the very best coffee they possibly could.

In 2009, they started roasting their own coffees under the One Line Coffee brand, and they have continued to move forward from there to a growing and increasingly appreciative customer base. My spouse and I have the pleasure of being part of that group, as we have enjoyed their wares from both their River Road Coffeehouse in Granville as well as their shrine-of-sorts to the fine coffee arts at their Short North location (the Formans also operate a second River Road Coffeehouse in Newark as well as Wiggin Street Coffee in Gambier.)

River Road Coffeehouse offers a very homey atmosphere in which
to hang while enjoying your coffee drinks and pastries.
Similar to Worthington, Granville and the surrounding township were built up to resemble a New England town. The River Road Coffeehouse lies on the outskirts of the town, residing close to the intersections of State Routes 16 and 37 in an old farmhouse (ironically enough, the farmhouse was relocated to its current location due to the construction of the State Route 16.)

The farmhouse provides a unique atmosphere which provides a myriad of options to hangout for the customer; part of the joy of stopping by is to simply take a break from the day, whether its plopping out on their couches by the fireplace mantle or grabbing some sun on their three-level deck during warmer months. Artwork from local artists displayed throughout the dining area space adds another folksy touch that we have appreciated during our visits.

River Road has provided a perfectly convenient spot for me and my spouse (and occasionally, some younger relatives of ours) to drop by for a cup of java in addition to a cafe treat or two. Like many of their brethren, this coffeehouse offers all the usual coffee house amenities, from the standard coffee drinks, wi-fi access, and a selection of food. In terms of the latter, River Road offers treats from local purveyors such as Lucky Cat and ToodleSquat Bakery and supplements them with their own homemade baked goods. Bagels and a homemade hummus are also on the menu as well as gluten-free goods. If coffee isn't your drink, River Road offers teas from Granville-based Petali Teas as an option.

One Line Coffee's store in the Short North is a coffee shrine, with
media materials, the best equipment and their amazing Kyoto-drip setup
In contrast to River Road, One Line Coffee's shop in the Short North was initially meant to be something of a polar opposite. Amenities such as free wi-fi, food items and the general ability to hang out for a couple hours were eschewed; coffee and the the various channels to produce the very best of all things coffee-related was the original sole focus of the Formans in opening this storefront.

A few minor concessions have been made since One Line opened its Short North location in July of 2012 - a small area to hangout does exist to the rear of the space, and a select collection of food items from local purveyors like Destination Donuts and Pattycake Bakery are available to customers. But for the most part, One Line Coffee's stated intent still remains intact, and the result has been some of the best coffee that Columbus has to offer.

One Line's standard pour over coffee makes for a great cup of coffee, but their iced coffee creations help fill a personal jonesing for the best iced coffee I can find (coming from generally fair-weather California, iced coffee drinks were my preference.) One Line Coffee definitely ranks in the top three that I have had since moving to the area.

Their standard pour over iced coffee is an mouth-pleasing concoction in itself (let's say I haven't come close to being able to do that here at home); however, it is their Kyoto-drip iced coffee that has taken this beverage to a whole different level for me. I had only learned of this slow and meticulous method of creation after my move here to Columbus and was immediately intrigued.

When One Line announced they had it available, I got down there in fairly short order. this brew's uniquely aromatics and chocolate, fudgy overtones had me dancing this unique liquid deliberately in and around my tongue, something I typically only do with beverages such as beer or wine. Even better, this unique brew is available in growler form for home consumption, especially convenient for those who can't quite make it down to their store front as much as they might like.

As the sign alludes, One Line has some of the best hand poured coffee around
In general, One Line shows their enthusiasm for their craft in many ways, from their regular cupping events, their vast array of coffee equipment, and just plain old conversation with staff members, both engaged in and overheard. A quick chat about the subject can lead to simply something about coffee you never knew before, or perhaps an impromptu sampling of a newly released coffee.

And it appears that their pursuit of coffee excellence will reach even more people now, based on One Line's recent announcement that they will be taking over the former Peet's/Caribou Coffee at the Huntington Center in Downtown, with a target opening date of March 2nd.  With longtime area veterans Cafe Brioso and Cup O' Joe already in the area, and the social-justice-focused Roosevelt Coffeehouse nearing its own opening date, the transformation of Downtown Columbus into a new mini-hotbed of local-coffee excellence appears to be at hand.

River Road Coffeehouse
935 River Road
Granville, OH 43023
(740) 587-7266
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One Line Coffee
745 North High St (Short North)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 564-9852
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Watching Our Flings Be Flung: Pippin at the Playhouse Square (Cleveland)

Magic to Do: Pippin the Musical stopped by Cleveland's
Playhouse Theater during its current national tour
My spouse is huge into Broadway musicals, with her most favorite of them all being Pippin. The original 1972 production, centered around the title character's life as prince and heir in King Charlamagne's court, detailed his quests for his life's ultimate fulfillment. The ultimate failure of the prince's searches and his resultant feelings, mostly those of frustration and emptiness, were both channeled to the audience and cajoled by the Leading Player character (played originally by Ben Vereen) and his accompanying era-appropriate performance troupe members. The final act, after Pippin has failed to find his ultimate meaning in the fields of war, sex and politics, is spearheaded by the Leading Player and fellow troupe members. The group urged the prince to go out in an actual "blaze of glory" by flinging himself into a fiery pit, rather than "settle" for the mundane existence as head of a peasant family.

Despite mixed reviews, the play's derring-do helped fuel the play to a successful five-year run on Broadway. The original cast featured prominent names like Vereen, Jill Clayburgh, Irene Ryan (best known for her role in The Beverly Hillbillies), and John Rubinstein as Pippin. In addition, the play featured the choreography of the famed Bob Fosse, the financial backing of the Motown record label, as well as the tunes of multi-Grammy/Oscar/Tony-winning composer Stephen Schwartz.

The most recent Broadway production of Pippin, which took home four Tony Awards in 2013 (including Best Revival of a Musical), replaced the era-specific performance troupe with a more modern, Cirque du Soleil-type traveling circus. This aspect piqued my spouse's interest in the revival the most, and just added more reason to catch this play on its national tour.

While seeing the play was an easy decision, the decision of when to see it was more tricky: since no dates had been scheduled for Columbus for 2015, the choice for us came down to a possibly winter-weather laden trip in February in Cleveland or a summertime heat/humidity jaunt to Louisville, KY. We chose Cleveland in February and, suffice it to say, the weather was plain nasty on this Valentines Day, with single-digit temperatures, gusty winds and occasional whiteout conditions.

Vicious Valentines Day temperatures, snow and winds greeted us
as we made our way to the watch the play
Despite the rambunctious weather, we persevered and made it to the main parking garage for Playhouse Square. While many parking options, most of which are less expensive, do exist around the Square, we chose to purchase a pass to the main parking facility as an add-on with our tickets due to the possibility of bad weather. This turned out to be a golden decision, as the garage has a covered walkway all the way into the facility. Valet parking is also an option for those theater-goers who want to spend a few more bucks.

This visit was our first trip to Playhouse Square for both of us, and we were caught off guard a bit by the size of the facility. Emerging in 1921 and 1922 as a conglomeration of five theaters, Playhouse Square had its heyday fairly in their early decades of existence; however, the rise of television, incidents of vandalism and general neglect, and a fire at the Ohio Theater in 1964 led to plans by the theater owners to raze the buildings.

Thankfully, efforts spearheaded by educator-turned-historical-preservationist Ray Shepardson started in 1970 allowed the theaters to prove they were still viable as performing arts facilities. Since then, Playhouse Square has undergone extensive restoration and revival efforts that have transformed it into the largest performing arts complex in the United States outside of Lincoln Center in New York. The current facility now holds 11 theater stages and numerous shops and restaurants, and has become a major anchor in the ongoing revitalization of Cleveland's downtown area.

A panorama of sights both outside and inside the Connor Palace Theatre
The 2,800-seat Connor Palace Theatre (formerly Palace) Theater hosted Pippin for their run in Cleveland. Like Columbus' own collection of historic theaters, The Connor's architecture had its own distinctive elements (the one-time world's largest theater lobby, for instance) that makes a visit to any of these theaters a special, unique experience.

The play featured highlight performances from two of its most elderly cast members. John Rubinstein, who originated Pippin in the initial Broadway production, came full circle of sorts in playing Pippin's father for the national tour. Contrary to the serious demeanor of the original production, Rubinstein's played the role as a bit of goofy incompetent and brought a manic energy to the stage. His centerpiece came with his deft handling of the song proclaiming the glories of battle, "War Is A Science", including its rapid-fire, rap-like final verses.

The other obvious highlight was Priscilla Lopez's handling of Berthe, Pippin's paternal and rather randy grandmother. She played to the crowd in perhaps the most sing-along tune in the play ("No Time At All") and handled herself on the trapeze like few performers, 60-plus-years-old or otherwise, could do. Lopez drew a rousing response from the gathered right after her act as well as the loudest cheers during her curtain call.

As a fan of the play, my spouse thoroughly enjoyed this revival. She appreciated the elements that they did keep from the first production (for example, despite the new circus theme, they enhanced and paid homage to the original Fosse-created choreography) and really welcomed the appended ending involving Pippin's step-child Theo, as he became the new mark for the Leading Player and attending circus performers' attentions.

Inside the 2,800 seat Connor Palace before showtime
as well as a listing of the Pippin's cast.
As someone who is nowhere near the Broadway musical fan as my spouse (I have seen productions of A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera and Rent, but do not actively seek these shows out), I found Pippin a pretty fair experience that held my attention from beginning to end. For me, the songs (save for "No Time At All") were solid but didn't quite venture into super-memorable territory, and the second half of the play just doesn't quite have the energy of the first. However, the combo of amazing acrobatics and illusion, along with the solid cast (along with Lopez and Rubinstein, Sam Lips as Pippin and Sasha Allen as Leading Player gave strong performances) showed me why this play revival drew the rave reviews and praise that it did on Broadway.

Playhouse Square
1501 Euclid Ave
Cleveland, OH 44115
(216) 771-4444
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Pippin (U.S. Tour)
Next closest-distance shows to Columbus
Nashville, TN (6-hour drive): March 10 - 15, 2015, Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC)
Louisville, KY (3-hour drive): June 2 - 7, 2015, The Kentucky Center
Chicago, IL (5 1/2-hour drive): July 29 - August 8, 2015, Cadillac Palace Theatre
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Unflappably Fun: Jack Flaps (Cleveland, OH)

Driving around Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood reminds me a bit of roaming around San Francisco's cross-bay neighbor, Oakland. There's a little bit of artist enclave (Jingletown) mixed in with a bit more fancy (Rockridge) and everything in between (Fruitvale and West Oakland.) To be truthful, though, Ohio City is its own unique district with its own distinct personality, a place that is now on the radarscope for visitors to the area, with its well-known attractions like the West Side Market, Mitchell's Ice Cream and Great Lakes Brewery. The neighborhood also is attracting new residents: Ohio City was only one three Cleveland neighborhoods to add population in the past ten years, according to Ohio City's own website.

Cleveland overall is also the home to an increasingly prominent food scene, and Ohio City has its own collection of worthy eateries. On a recent trip up to the area, we stopped by the neighborhood and scoped out what turned a terrific combination of tasty food and fun atmosphere in Jack Flaps.

Jack Flaps sports a small, tidy and hip interior, artwork that exudes
fun and a menu of inventive breakfast creations
Opening of December of 2013 in the former space of quirky but well-received chili purveyor Palookaville, Jack Flaps is a collaborative effort between Chef Eric Williams and Randy Carter, both of whom are involved in the popular modern Mexican restaurant Momocho.

After spending time trying to find a legal parking spot for our car (we luckily landed one on the street close to their entrance; note that parking spaces along the main street are limited to one hour) we walked in at what turned out to be a good time and were seated pretty quickly. It was no surprise with the hip atmosphere that most of the diners looked to be twenty-somethings; however, we never felt out of place, and the service was incredibly friendly and welcoming. An additional welcoming feature was the photo artwork of faces in various stages of egg splatter; the captured facial expressions couldn't help but bring a smile to our faces.

Jack Flaps spiffy logo, surrounded by their Breakfast Kimchi,
Candy Jalapeño Pancakes and the Currantly Winter Waffle
We started off with their house-brewed coffee (they source beans from local roasters City Roast) and decided that, with a name like Jack Flaps, one of us had to try their pancakes. Their Candy Jalapeño Jack Flaps ($9.50) sported just a hint of those mildly-heat laden peppers and an overall slightly cakey texture, something which we both really enjoyed. What made this dish pop was a special bourbon caramel sauce that they had just for that day; we had to take it home along with our leftover pancake.

I had wanted to try their Carrot Cake Waffle but alas, they were out of this item, so I went with the Currantly Winter version that we ended up quite enjoying as well. This buckwheat-battered waffle was light and airy, with a tangy currant-gooseberry compote with chunks of snickerdoodle crunch to add some texture contrast.

We added a couple sides to our order: their Vietnamese-style Sausage Patties ($3) were on the skinny side but sported a good flavor with what seemed to be a hint of cinnamon, vaguely reminiscent to the flavor of a Vietnamese chả quế. Kimchi may be coming something of a trend, and Jack Flaps' version ($1) was really one of the more funky-fermented-tangy versions we've had; it's a definite order again candidate on a return visit.

Jack Flaps' smaller space will lead to backups at time in the natural course of things (there was a bit of a queue waiting for a table by the time we left.) However, this is but a small detracting factor that should not prevent you from dropping by this eatery to sample their uniquely fun atmosphere and scrumptious offerings.
Jack Flaps
​3900 Lorain Avenue (Ohio City)
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 961-5199​
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Downtown Mashup: MEATBar and Mashita Noodles

The MEATbar has hung in there at its South High Downtown Columbus
location since its soft-opening in October 2014.
Certain locations seem to evolve into erstwhile "Bermuda Triangles" in terms of restaurants. No matter what eatery goes into the building, they go missing after a few short months. On my commute to work in San Francisco, I drove by such a restaurant location that saw numerous iterations that never seemed to last more than a few months at a time, sandwiched between long periods of vacancy.

I've noticed a couple of spots in Downtown Columbus that have gained at least a hint of that notoriety. The space at 12 E. Broad Street had been home to Cafe Lola since 2008 before they branched out and later contracted to their current location (at the 1 Columbus Center building at the northwest corner of Broad & High.) Since Cafe Lola's departure, the fast casual sushi-oriented Maki Go and the very short-lived Yuan Ye Kitchen gave it a go and were unsuccessful (the property currently remains without a tenant.)

122 South High has a similar history. with Wendy's/Tim Horton's abandoning shop from that location (Tim Horton's later came back to the area at the northeast corner of Broad & High in 2011, replacing a Dunkin' Donuts.) Since then, Chez du Bon and Fin tried and failed to get a foothold there. That has not stopped others from giving it the good old college try, including the space's two current residents.

The currently longest-standing member of this twosome is MEATBar. Starting off as a test concept of Yavonne Sarber's FAB Dining Group (whose currently operating restaurants include Oliver's, Manifesto and De-Novo; they also were behind the previously mentioned Chez du Bon and Fin) with a soft opening in October 2014, MEATBar has more or less settled in as the space's main tenant.

MEATBar has an expansive space and a sleek, unifying motif
Similar to other locally-based bowl-style-meal purveyors like Bibibop and Acre Farm-to-Table, MEATBar offers the diner a variety of food items (Mac and Cheese, Spaetzle Noodle, Quinoa, etc.) and, befitting the restaurant name, gives the diner a fancier-than-normal protein add-in, including pork belly, ahi tuna, and duck) to add into their bowl.

This eatery also offers daily specials, including shrimp and grits (I am not generally a seafood person, but I found the latter to be one of the best things I've had there) as well as tacos, plus some not-so-typical embellishments such as beer, wine and what look to be better than average desserts (including a bacon cheesecake.)

I found that MEATBar's serving containers (which resemble large-diameter cake pans) really dampens the ooh-look-how-appetizing-this-food-is-in-this-photo factor, and thus no food pictures here. With that said, I will say that I've found their bowl combos to be generally tasty and a fairly interesting counter-point of sorts to nearby Market 65's fresh produce-oriented bowls.

The return of Mashita Noodles was the result of too much success
Interestingly, MEATBar's new dance partner inside the space arrived there because of TOO much success. Mashita Noodles was reawakened because, as owner John Franke explained in this interview for the WOSU All Sides radio program, his Jobu Ramen venture in Grandview Heights (my previous post on which can be found here) turned out to be more popular than he ever imagined. Franke revealed in the interview they were caught off guard by the overwhelming response on their opening day late May of 2014, ending up in what turned up to be an non-winnable game of catch up all the way until their announced closing the first week of 2015.

It hasn't taken too long for Franke to get back on his feet, however, as he has revived the concept he started in his Mashita Noodles food cart as a brick-and-mortar pop-up within MEATBar's space.

Clockwise from top left: Fried Chicken Steam Bun, Spicy Kimchi Ramen,
Karaage Venison Steam Bun, and Kimchijeon (Kimchi Pancakes)
One will find one big change in relation to the pricing: with lesser overhead costs, Mashita can now charge one or two bucks less for each item than they could at Jobu's Grandview location. Otherwise, the food quality and menu options have more or less remained the same with a couple slight tweaks. Unlike Jobu (which had four set ramen items,) Mashita offers a standard Spicy Kimchi Ramen ($9; a very nice pleasant experience, especially during these colder days) as well as a build your own bowl option ($8 or $9, depending on your add-ons.) Special spicy noodles can be also used for your ramen order for $1.

Steamed buns ($4 or two for $7) come with a rotating selection of proteins (I had an very tasty venison steam bun; a fried chicken version was just slightly salty but otherwise fine) and wings now come with three variations instead of Jobu's regular five-spice dry rub option. Kimchi Pancakes (Kimchijeon; $5) had a less fermented tang than what you might get elsewhere (perhaps a concession to the predominantly downtown worker clientele?) but were otherwise pretty flavorful.

This MEATBar mashup is apparently just the starting point for the resurrected Mashita; per this Columbus Alive article, dinner-time offerings can be found at the Brewery District's Double Happiness, and the food cart is slated to reappear during the warmer months later this year.

Mashita Noodles
122 South High St (Downtown)
(dinner service also at
Double Happiness
482 S Front St (Brewery District))
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 450-2259
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122 South High St (Downtown)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 357-7874

08/17/2015 Update: The MEATBar has closed. However, Mashita continues its mobile operations and can be found numerous regular locations like Tri-Village's Tree Bar and 1064 North High Street in the Short North. The latest location updates for Mashita can be found on their Facebook page.

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California Odds and Ends: SoMa Streat Food Park (San Francisco)/Mountain Grounds (Martinez)/Track 7 Brewing (Sacramento)

This final food-oriented post on our 2014 California travels covers one of San Francisco's newer mobile food bastions, a rather unlike place to find some great coffee, and a nice little take on the West Coast style IPA by a brewer in California's capital city.

An oasis in a concrete jungle: the entrance to SoMa Streat Food Park
SoMa Streat Food Park: Driving through San Francisco on our last trip to California, my spouse and I had a "Empire Strikes Back" moment. In that classic movie, there is a scene where Han Solo and his Rebel crew escape pursuing Imperial ships by pretending to attack a Star Destroyer as a guise for latching his ship, the Millennium Falcon, to the bottom of the Destroyer. The Imperial Fleet loses track of the ship and decide that the Falcon has jumped to hyperspace. Before the fleet itself jumps to hyperspace, they perform a standard Imperial procedure by dumping their garbage into space.

Ah, but Han Solo knows this, so as the trash is dumped out, he simply unlatches his ship and floats away with the garbage until all Imperial Fleet ships have jumped to hyperspace. However, he needs to find a place where they can shelter down as well as fix the creaky hyperdrive engine and scans the computer maps for something nearby.

Han Solo: No. Well, wait. This is interesting. Lando.
Princess Leia: Lando system?
Han Solo: Lando's not a system, he's a man.

For us, the conversation went similarly:

Me: Okay, food trucks...wait, Streat Food.
Spouse: Street what?
Me: Streat Food. Food truck park South of Market.

San Francisco's SoMa (as in the South of Market neighborhood) Streat Food Park, nestled between the US 101 freeway and the local Costco, was in development prior to my departure to Ohio. I had always wanted to drop by to see the finished product, especially to compare it to other versions I had encountered like Columbus' Dinin' Hall and Traverse City's The Little Fleet (my blogpost on the latter can be found here.) My spouse and I found that the Streat Food Park offers a bit of an oasis from the surrounding concrete jungle, offering arcade-style games, the "Streat Brew" beverage truck with wine, beer & other mixed drinks, and a covered main seating area with televisions and patio tables to complement the rotating collection of food trucks.

Food trucks, covered seating, coffee vendors and the Streat Brew
alcoholic beverage truck are just some of the sights at SoMa Streat Food.
The food trucks here include some of the more regionally famous mobile vendors (Chairman Bao, Señor Sisig, Little Green Cyclo and Roli Roti, to name a few) as well as trucks with some unique food focuses (from the Irish-Eritrean(!) menu of EireTrea to Chef Pelle's Nordic Scandinavian specialties to Sugar and Spun's natural and organic (?!) cotton candy.)

The Caribbean Spices and El Calmar food trucks and their respective eats
None of the big-name or truly unique vendors seemed to be around during the time of our visit, so we took a shot with what sounded appetizing at that time and ended up with some decent eats. My spouse's fish tacos from the Peruvian oriented El Calamar were nothing eye-popping taste-wise, but did serve as solid belly fillers. 

Meanwhile, I went with the Haitian-oriented Caribbean Spices truck and their Kongo Jerk Sliders, a mix of Haitian pikliz with jerk chicken between plantain patties. The slider did not quite really hold up as such and I had a much easier time mixing everything together as a plate lunch. I wouldn't have minded a little more kick from both the jerk and the pikliz (which uses the notoriously capsaicin-laden Scotch bonnet pepper in its preparation), but otherwise it made for a decent lunch.

SoMa Streat Food Park
429 11th Street (SoMa)
San Francisco, CA 94103
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The front of the rather unassuming location of Martinez-based
Mountain Grounds, great coffee by way of Martinez
Mountain Grounds: While boasting the distinction of being legendary New York Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio's birthplace, as well as being home to the National Historic Site dedicated to famed author and naturalist John Muir, the small East Bay town of Martinez, California does not normally come to the top of the area's destination places. However, if you do find yourself near here, a tasty reason to visit can be found in an otherwise unremarkable strip mall on the outskirts of town.

My initial visit to the Mountain Grounds coffee shop a couple years ago was a couple months after their initial opening in September 2013. It was something of a take-a-chance stab at some good coffee in an area dominated by chain coffee places such as Starbucks and Peet's. The owners indeed had an interesting history, pulling roots from Montana to setup shop in this normally very quiet county seat of Contra Costa County. The coffee beans sourced are also roasted and shipped from a longtime friend located in Montana.

The lattes I received that day were about the best we had during that whole visit to California. As it turned out, others have noticed the quality of the beans used at this coffee shop: Coffee Review placed the Guatemala Acatenango Gesha beans sourced by Mountain Roasters in the Top 30 Coffees of 2013 and the second highest in the state of California for that year. Since then, they have joined the nitro-charged iced coffee trend (before Starbucks and local-purveyor Crimson Cup brought out their beer-oriented versions), added a way to beat the California heat with a myriad of Starbucks-styled coffee concoctions and a more straightforward espresso over ice cream, and have integrated themselves within the local community.

My return trip to this coffee house showed me a much more bustling place than my previous visit, especially considering it was a lazy between-holidays Sunday morning. Mountain Grounds has added basic cafe-styled food items to their menu (including bagels, muffins and paninis) as well as other non-coffee beverages like chai and cider. And yes, the coffee was quite good again.

Martinez, California and the state of Montana: not two areas you would think of the source of great coffee, but Mountain Grounds is doing a pretty good job of changing that perception.

Mountain Grounds
3750 Alhambra Avenue
Martinez, CA 94553
(406) 459-9206
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Track 7 Brewing Company: We "accidentally" ended up with a bomber of this Sacramento-area brewer' Panic IPA during a trip to grab some non-Ohio-distributed brews for our trip back home. It was definitely not on our list of must-gets initially, but was recommended to us by a store clerk after we pulled a couple bottles of Russian River Brewing's Pliny the Elder for our stash. According to him, this beer took "Best of Show" at the California State Fair Craft Brew Competition in June 2014, besting entries from more well-known breweries such as Stone and Firestone Walker.

I am not the biggest IPA fan, but Panic was an IPA that I very much enjoyed. It started off with that West-Coast style taste profile with hints of grapefruit and pine, but finished with a uniquely and pleasant grassy, bready taste. Even my spouse, who is much more of the hop-head/more IBUs, the tastier gal, could appreciate this very well-balanced brew.

Track 7 Brewery's newest production facility, which began construction in 2014, is slated for its official grand opening festivities on February 21, just in time for the upcoming Sacramento Beer Week, slated to start one week later on February 27.

Track 7 Brewing Company
3747 West Pacific Ave, #F
Sacramento, CA 95820
916-520-HOPS (4677)
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Font and Center: Igloo Letterpress

Igloo Letterpress is a gem of a business nestled in Olde Worthington
Like many others, doodling was a constant companion throughout my years as a student. My doodling subjects depended a lot on my whims at the time, but something I would always come back to was letter fonts. Whether it was hand re-creating those that I saw and liked (Prince's "Purple Rain" album font was a favorite) or trying to design a personalized font I could call my own, I could at least pass myself off as looking engaged with the class lesson of the day.

Once I had moved to Columbus, I occasionally spied some gloriously old-time fonts and graphics on what appeared to be letterpress produced media on signs and products for sale at local businesses such as German Village's Pistacia Vera, Easton-located Celebrate Local and Worthington's Sassafras Bakery, among others. Eventually I figured out they were produced by a company in Worthington with a rather colorful name and an interesting story behind it.

Igloo Letterpress was founded by owner Allison Chapman in her home back in Minnesota in 1996. When her husband landed a job in the Columbus area and they made their subsequent relocation to Ohio, Chapman found that relocating her letterpress business was something of a challenge. She needed a building that not only had enough space to handle their large work tables and drawers of type, but also handle her over 13,000 pounds of letterpress equipment, including her grandfather's 1892 clamshell press.

Eventually the building in Olde Worthington that would become their current location came available, and Igloo formally opened their doors here in 2009. Since then, the business has continued to prosper, garnering raves from their clients and customers as well as well-earned recognition for the business and Chapman herself, including her inclusion as one of the Eight Badass Columbus Female Founders You Should Know by Amy Taylor of

The Snow House Gift Shop has all of Igloo Letterpress' retail
products as well as the work of other local artisans
The Igloo Letterpress property covers two buildings. The Snow House, acquired by Igloo and re-opened as their gift shop in September 2013, contains all manner of Igloo Letterpress' retail products as well as a collection of arts and crafts from numerous local artisans. Often time my spouse and I have simply dropped by to browse through the shop, especially in concert with a visit to the Worthington Farmers Market; almost everything within these walls has a high level of visual pull. In a way, it's like window shopping without a window between you and your eyes.

But even more satisfying is in the purchasing, especially anything that has been run through their letter press or book binding machines. For example, the tactile feel of the indented letters and graphics, the simple yet clever greetings, bright vibrant designs and colors and bold typeface fonts that are characteristic of Igloo's greeting cards (which cover just about every occasion you care to imagine) make their mass-produced competition sterile and lifeless by comparison.

The heart of Igloo Letterpress is their studio space.
I believe you even gain more appreciation of their finished products when you venture inside Igloo's main production building. Cozily charming on the outside, the building interior has a certain chaotic organization that you better appreciate as you watch the employees perform their duties. Everything is hand-produced here at Igloo. From the whir and clank of the presses, to the sight and scent of vibrant inks, the concentration of employees in aligning and arranging the various graphic media, and then surveying their newly printed materials on the side as they dry and await finalization: the whole process is an homage to art form which has now been concentrated around the country into a few select bastions of creativity.

Even better, anyone can participate in this process, via one of their drop-in Saturday Farmers Market or holiday-oriented workshops or scheduled classes, some of which can handle even the younger tykes of this world. Last year's Valentine's Day (a similar event was held just this last weekend) and Christmas-oriented drop-in workshops that my spouse and I participated in proved to be incredibly fun, hands-on experiences. The Valentine's Day workshop especially was a uniquely satisfying tactile experience for me, feeling the weight of the type in my hands and arranging it alongside the graphics blocks such that it not only it actually could run through the press (hint: sharp angles generally do not work so well) but produce a little piece of art of which the creator could be tremendously proud.

Igloo letterpress is a gem of a business that seems destined to keep their tried-and-true machines and and age-honed printing methods and processes running for many more years to come in the Central Ohio region.

Igloo Letterpress/Snow House Gift Shop
39 West New England Ave
Worthington, OH 43085
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Update: Things are indeed going well for Igloo Letterpress!  Just today, they announced on their Facebook feed they are moving to a larger space just up the block in from where they currently operate in downtown Worthington.

Into The Second Decade: Northstar Cafe

The exterior of the Beechwold location of Northstar Cafe; this mini-chain
has been making its mark in the Columbus dining scene since 2004
One particularly notable detail with any restaurant is their menu prices: is the money that you are paying worth what are you getting in the food, service and atmosphere? Coming from the Bay Area, I became acutely aware of the cost differences between similar restaurant items between the two regions; in general, the lower cost for many products and services here in Central Ohio has become one of the things I have really grown to appreciate.

This is one of the reasons why my first visit to Northstar Cafe stuck in my mind: as I glanced through their menu, I can remember saying to myself, "Wow, these are close to Bay Area-type prices."

If one glances through Northstar Cafe's philosophy on its website, you get a hint of why these price points are high for this area. As co-owner Kevin Malhame himself details in this Columbus Underground interview regarding Northstar's sister restaurant Third and Hollywood, their focus on "values-oriented ingredient purchasing" as well as the sheer number of purveyors they regularly deal with boosts their costs higher than the typical restaurant.

Northstar has signature elements throughout its three locations,
as exampled here in its Beechwold location
Northstar Cafe now sports three locations around the Columbus area, starting with their recently remodeled Short North location in 2004, followed by their Beechwold and Easton Mall locations. Of these three, my spouse and I have dined at the latter two locations.

Certain design and functional elements are commonplace among the three locations: signature-style coffee dispensers to cleanly formatted one-page menus; the racks filled with various magazines, and baked goods near the cash register, typically with their time of baking posted. All locations also offer outdoor seating; Easton adds on a fire pit with their location, while the patio at the Short North location appears to make for an ideal people watching location. Easton also is the largest of the three locations, offering double-decked seating and a nicely-flowing interior space and an opportunity to see their kitchen in action.

Tipping had traditionally never been required at any of the Northstar locations, as the service has always been order-at-the-counter. Technically, it still is not a requirement (the ordering system has not changed) but the option to tip restaurant staff has been opened up to diners. This policy when implemented led to initial confusion and perhaps even a touch of resentment for long-time customers, especially in light of the generally higher menu prices.

Northstar Cafe's Easton location offers double-decked seating
and a much more open view of the kitchen to diners.
Overall, we've found Northstar Cafe has a swath of items that rate between three to four stars on a scale of five. Their flat breads are a favorite of both me and the spouse; I also have been pleased with their Fish Sandwich (a grilled Barramundi filet topped with lettuce, red onion, tomato slices and aioli accompanied by hand-cut fries) and their Chicken and Avocado Sandwich.

We are both somewhat wary of non-authentic takes on ethnic dishes, but my spouse found a winner in their Pad Thai off the dinner menu. And while we are both not a fan of beets, their Northstar Burger (a blend of organic brown rice, black beans and beets, accompanied by white cheddar, kale, pickle and a tomato slice as well as a side salad) is another standard go-to for my spouse.

A collection of Northstar Cafe menu items (clockwise from top left)
The Sweet Potato and Turkey Hash, Pad Thai, Sweet Basil
Burrito, and their Cloud Nine Pancakes.
Breakfast/brunch-wise, their Cloud Nine Pancakes and their Housemade Granola (one of the cheapest options on their menu) are always on my personal consideration list along with their baked goods. But it is their Sweet Potato and Turkey Hash (a blend of Applewood-smoked turkey, red peppers, sweet onions, sunny-side-up eggs) that we agree may be their best dish; it is in fact my spouse's de facto selection for breakfast or brunch nine times out of ten.

With that said, there are a few items that we found just a little lackluster. The lunch/dinner-oriented burritos are not our favorites: their breakfast-oriented Big Burrito with its combo of eggs, sweet potato, black beans and salsa has a zing that I believe their lunchtime Thai and Sweet Basil Burritos could use. Their Square Meal is a healthy mix of black beans over brown rice with sautéed peppers, onions, avocado, cheddar cheese and corn tortillas, but again lacks that zing that the veggie-oriented Northstar Burger gives you.

Beverages are available across the gamut but are targeted to a select few brands for categories such as beer and wine. One notable change has been with the coffee, with the switch from Columbus-based Backroom Roasters to the beans of North Carolina's Coffee Culture a couple years back. Since the change, the coffee has tended toward a subtler-tasting java with more floral and fruity notes.

So that question posed at the beginning of this post still remains: is the money that we are paying at Northstar Cafe worth what we are getting in terms of food, atmosphere and service?

For us, that answer remains yes, though I admit I did a second take on our last visit when I saw certain menu prices had crept toward, if not slightly over that $15 mark. Along with Northstar Cafe's food sourcing philosophy, we appreciate the consistency of their preparations and service: we've never had a dish served to us that was defective (too salty, too cold, etc.) and we've always had friendly service from staff members, including an unexpected comp or two without asking for such.

I can certainly see the other side of the higher-price equation, however, and signs are there that this is becoming an issue for more and more people. Only time will tell whether this particular aspect, a byproduct of Northstar Cafe's food-sourcing philosophies, will prove to be a drag on that formula of success that has fueled this eatery for more than a decade.

Northstar Cafe - Beechwold
4241 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43214
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Northstar Cafe on Urbanspoon

Northstar Cafe - Easton
4015 Townsfair Way
Columbus, OH 43219
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Northstar Café on Urbanspoon

Sonoma Day-Tripping: Fremont Diner/Mission Sonoma San Francisco/Adobe Road Winery

Our California travels during the holidays, unlike other visits in the past, were marked by days or half-day trips instead of extended multi-day affairs. One of these excursions was marked with a quick road trip along Highway 12 into Sonoma, where we dropped by an old favorite, absorbed a little California history, and did a little wine tasting along the way.

The Fremont Diner has gained a loyal following since its opening in 2009
Fremont Diner - this roadside diner had been formerly the home of a long-standing roadside dive Babe's Burgers and Franks, which had a reputation for good burgers. After Babe's closed, over a year passed before the building was remade and reopened in mid-2009 by owner Chad Harris. Despite the cramped (though nicely nostalgically-decorated) interior space and window-only service, diners started to flock here as word spread the delicious Southern-styled eats being created here using locally sourced food purveyors.

I myself had been a frequent visitor of the diner while I was still residing in the Bay Area, and my spouse got the pleasure of tasting their wares on our first year dating anniversary trip out to California in 2011. Our last year's Christmas-time trip to California was our first chance for a revisit since then.

Exterior changes were the first thing that caught my eye on this return back to the diner. The hand-painted clumsy-in-a-charming way original Fremont Diner sign had been relegated to the back of the property. Even when this sign was up front, the restaurant was (and still is) easy to drive past if you aren't sure what to look for.

Clockwise from top left: Glass jugs of complimentary water; a "Greetings
 from Sonoma" mural from the now-enclosed outdoor seating area; a shot
of the Fremont Diner kitchen; and dishes of deliciousness ready to go
In addition, the outdoor grassy area with picnic tables next to the restaurant with had been enclosed, providing a shelter from inclement weather or extreme temperatures. With indoor seating packed as usual and cold temperatures (by California standards) that morning, it was a welcome sight this morning. This enclosed space had some additional neat features, including a natty Sonoma-oriented mural and play things for the kids (I spied two buckets of Mr. Potato-Head toys, amongst other items.)

Another welcome change was the switch to table service, which is a fairly recent change from the order at the window queue I was used to going through every time I dropped by for a visit. Being a bit chilly in the outdoor seating, we immediately ordered a pot of French Press coffee; the diner uses the roasts of San Francisco-based Four Barrel Coffee.

Clockwise from top left: Four Barrel French Press Coffee; Nashville Fried
Chicken and Mac 'N Cheese (from an earlier visit); and our breakfast this
morning: Black Pepper Brisket Hash and the Chilaquiles
While there are many delicious things to sample here at Fremont, my personal leanings are toward their Nashville-style chicken (yes, take note all you Hot Chicken Takeover fans who might be heading to the Bay Area soon) and anything involving pork. No chance for fried chicken this early in the morning (we did find an archival photo of their finger-licking version of this dish from a previous visit, as seen above), but we found some acceptably delectable substitutes in the Black Pepper Brisket Hash ($10.99) and their take on Chilaquiles ($11.99). The spouse was taken aback at first at not getting a corned beef flavor profile, but got in tune with the smoky profile of the brisket in her hash. The addition of pickled onions in my chilaquiles add both a bit of color and extra zing to Fremont Diner's otherwise solid take on this Mexican classic.

The Fremont Diner has a whole lot more to choose from, including craft ciders and beers, desserts (including butterscotch pudding and lemon chess meringue pie slices) and the recent addition of barbecue dinners spring of 2014. Perhaps the best advice if you decide to stop by is bring an appetite and/or bring a lot of friends: there's a lot of good stuff to be found in Fremont Diner's seasonally-oriented menus, and there is no real mystery why this place remains a favorite destination for many.

The Fremont Diner
2698 Fremont Dr. (CA Highway 12 - Google Maps)
Sonoma, CA  95476
(707) 938-7370
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The front of  Mission San Francisco Solano, the most
northernmost mission on the famed El Camino Real
Mission San Francisco Solano - there is no doubting the influence that Spanish settlers had in many areas throughout the Americas, and California was an area where that influence was profound. Much of this influence was brought on by those of the Catholic faith: from the mid-1700s all the way to statehood in 1859, representatives from the Franciscan Order, led by Father Junipero Serra, setup missions throughout the state with the idea to colonize the area as well as bring Christianity to the native peoples.

This Spanish colonization had consequences both positive (mainly via introduction into California of modern agricultural technology and European vegetables, fruits and horses) and negative (particularly in relation to the decline and decimation of Native populations from exposure to diseases and the attempts to turn and keep individuals into Christianity.) An inexpensive way to dive into this chapter of California history lies in a visit to one of these sites.

The main mission building, restored after the 1906 San Francisco
Earthquake damaged the structure, contains many informational exhibits,
Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, operated by California State Parks and part of the Sonoma State Historic Park, is the northernmost and last established (construction began in 1823) outpost along what became known as El Camino Real (translation: The Royal Highway). This road connected the 21 missions of what was then Alta California as well as assorted military presidios and pueblas such that a traveler could make it between outposts with one day's travel.

The only mission established while an independent Mexico ruled the region, Mission Solano San Francisco operated as such for only 11 years before it was officially closed in 1834. From there, the building underwent numerous ownership transfers and uses as well as increasing neglect until the property was bought by the California Landmarks League in 1903. Restoration efforts began several years after this purchase before the full transfer of the property to the state of California took place in 1926.

Various scenes from around the Mission, including the chapel and
the fenced-in courtyard behind the main building.
Admission to the Mission property will get you into several sites which now make up the Sonoma Historic Sites Park, including the Military Barracks and nearby Casa Grande Servants Quarters, the Toscano Hotel, and two homes associated with General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who was influential in the military, business and political realm in the years just before, during after the Mexican-American War as well as the subsequent statehood of California.

Exhibits inside the Sonoma Barracks, including a original
California Bear Republic flag. We also dropped by the Toscano
Hotel and the Casa Grande Servants Quarters.
The Mission and associated Sonoma Historic Sites Park is open 365 days a year except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Sonoma State Historic Park
363 Third Street West
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-9560
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The interior of Adobe Road Winery, including their delicious wines.

Adobe Road Winery - I have a confession here to divulge: for all the years of residing next door to the most famous of the Bay Area's wine countries, I really was not much into wine tasting or drinking. My spouse and I have visited wineries since we've been together, but they never have been approached as enthusiastically as our pursuit of breweries.

Not that this visit to Adobe Road, located in the heart of Downtown Sonoma will change this tendency, but this was perhaps my first wine tasting where there was not a blah wine in the bunch. This was also a wine tasting that will guarantee a return visit at some point.for us.

This winery tasting room (the main winery is located in Petaluma), located on the main plaza in downtown Sonoma, is part of the boutique wine hobby/business of Kevin and Debra Buckler. Their prime business lies in auto racing, started in 1992 with the founding of their The Racing Group (TRG) race team (they now race under the banner of TRG-Aston Martin.) The Bucklers' have been quite successful at this prime venture, concentrating mainly on the Gran Turismo (GT) racing circuit with a brief dalliance with the NASCAR circuit in the late 2000s.

Their winery, started a few years after the founding of the racing team, has both received the same level of passion from the Bucklers and seen its own measure of success with highly-rated wines and various awards. On this visit, we had only been intending to grab a bottle of their old vine Zinfandel for my father-in-law, who had been wowed by it on a previous visit to the area. But as we got closer, we began to start thinking to ourselves, "Well, we're here...why not taste what they have?

Adobe Road Winery offers a standard tasting on weekdays of $15 and a tasting of their reserve wines on weekends for $25; both those fees are waived if you decide to purchase some wine. Our visit this day came with two bonuses, the first in the form of our host. Alec was a wonderful host, engaging in both his humor as well as his knowledge of the winery and the wines we were sampling. Our second bonus came in the day we visited: since we came on a Monday, we found out that the there were leftover wines from the premium tasting from the weekend. Since the wines would simply be tossed out due to oxidation, we were able to sample their entire available collection.

At the end of our wine tasting, my spouse and I agreed we could have been happy purchasing ANY of the bottles of wine they had for sale. Our fortune to sample the premium wines worked out for both us and Adobe Road, as we walked out with a bottle of their delicious Cabernet Franc along with the requested old vine Zinfandel for my father-in-law. This Cab Franc will definitely be a wine we save for a very special occasion.

Adobe Road Winery (Tasting Room)
481 1st Street West
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 939-9099
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