Dumplings Divine: Helen's Asian Kitchen

Dumpling creator and The Commissary class instructor
Helen Jiao has had her own kitchen serving diners in
the Northland area in Columbus since 2012.
I was introduced to the dumplings of Helen Jiao courtesy of class held by The Commissary. During that class, Ms. Jiao prepared dumplings of all types and cooked them in several different ways, and made it seem ridiculously easy. But as we found out that day, the preparation was nowhere near as easy as she made it seem, and the dumplings were just darn good.

The best thing is you don't have to take a class to experience Helen's dumplings - all you have to do is drop by her Northland area restaurant nestled on the northwest side of the Highway 161/Interstate 71 interchange.

The building's former life as a gentleman's club is slowly fading
faway with lots of food-oriented media and a few quirky touches
As mentioned in this previously written alt.eats.columbus article, the building in which Helen's Asian Kitchen sits had women "cooking" prior to this restaurant's arrival, though not at all in the culinary sense. These days, the mirrored walls lining the interior give a visitor the biggest clue of this venue's former life as a strip club, but the overlying feeling one gets is as an operating restaurant, with the requisite special menu and a couple of quirky touches, including Christmas-themed tablecloths on a few tables and a serenade by one of the restaurant's employees on the centrally-located piano during our meal.

Helen's Asian Kitchen menu has its share of Sichuan specialties
with that ma la profile, along with those tasty dumplings
The restaurant's Sichuan menu, with many dishes probably not too familiar to those more used to the Americanized styled Chinese food, is helpfully divided out into categories such as "Spicy", "Non-Spicy" and "Chef Selection". For this visit, we were here for the dumplings and the ma la combination of numbing and spicy that typifies many Sichuan preparations. 

Helen herself took our order and recognized me from the class, and gave something of a smiling approval our dumpling appetizers. They were delicious and plentiful, and typically would be enough to go with a main dish for the spouse and I for a full meal. But we were here to indulge, so we added some dry fried green beans (a simple personal favorite of ours from our orders at similarly-styled Fortune Restaurant) and the Boiled Beef in Hot Chili Oil, something that seemed similar to a Sichuan-styled hot pot. Both dishes were just a touch salty, full of that ma la profile, and quite satisfying.

Columbus may not have many restaurants that fit into that Sichuan Chinese profile, but the three that exist here all do a pretty good job of representing this style of cuisine well. Perhaps Helen's Asian Kitchen's biggest asset is Helen herself, both in terms of her well-made dishes and her personable demeanor.

Helen's Asian Kitchen
1070 E Dublin Granville Rd (Northland - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43229
(614) 987-5121
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Note: Thanks to the fine folks at Columbus Food Adventures, who dropped a line to say that Royal Ginger (owned by the same folks behind Hong Kong House) on Lane Avenue in Upper Arlington also serves Sichuan dishes.

I Can't Deny The Rhythm Here: My First Blogoversary

An early example of my blazing a trail to (Ohio) education
Well, the first anniversary in almost any endeavor is considered a milestone and a bit of an accomplishment; this is especially so in the often disposable, stop and start world of blogging (I know that aspect well, as I have a number of dead blogs to my name.) So I guess this would count as a celebration of sorts: one year ago, I started off with this simple post, a Cliff's Notes summary of my history and the general focus of this little blog of mine.

And here we are, 150 posts later. That number is a bit staggering to me - no way would I have thought I would have even half that many in a year's worth of time. But perhaps when I really think deeper about it, it's maybe not that surprising after all.

I have had essentially an eight-year association with the Buckeye State, with the last three years or so being of the continuous variety. In those years, I have been lucky enough to be in a position to not only explore the Central Ohio area fairly extensively, but also travel to many places within this state as well as its neighbors. I'm even more lucky to have a partner, the gal who drew me out here in the first place, who is as eager as I am to explore just what the heck really is out here. Our journeys both short and long, small and grand, have been memorable in many ways, and our discoveries within have provided ample fuel for my writing.

In addition, the community here has been truly wonderful. From my spouse's family, our circle of friends and colleagues, my fellow bloggers and others I have written about who I have had the pleasure to meet in person, and just plain neighbors have been a pleasure to meet, talk with, and learn from.

During my time here, there was one issue that remained for the spouse and I in terms of our relationship together. We decided early in the dating phase that if we did end up together, moving multiple times was not desirable. If we did move, it would be one big move, and we would also consider several places in the United States outside of Ohio, including to the area I will always hold special in my heart: the San Francisco Bay Area.

The result of that due consideration? Perhaps the answer can be best encapsulated by my very recent and first ever purchase of a lawn mower.

Well, at least it starts up pretty easily anyway...
Lawn mowers aren't exactly things you buy on a whim. Unless you are running a lawn care business or are buying it as a gift, there really is only one reason why you would buy this machine: you have a lawn to mow. Not that I'm looking forward to the act of mowing lawns for the next couple decades, but this modest machine represents the commitment we made to make the Buckeye State our home, hopefully for years to come.

For the last several months, we have encountered and engaged in the taxing trifecta of house hunting, finance securing and house bidding, and, of course, moving. The big stuff came over with the help of family and friends a couple weeks ago, and slowly but surely we along with our belongings are settling into our new environs.

That community feeling I earlier referred to has thankfully continued in our new place of residence. Our new neighbors have all been friendly and welcoming, and the previous owners of our home gave us an unexpected and incredibly touching housewarming gift in the form of a patio set that my spouse had been eyeing as a possible future acquisition.

A truly wonderful gesture from our new home's previous owners
Going into this second blog year, we plan keep exploring both our new neighborhood as well as the area in general, and I am sure I will have plenty more to write about in the upcoming months, whether it be new eateries, brand new music, community events and the like.

The post title, if you haven't guessed by now, is a reference to the rock band O.A.R.'s paean to this area, "Road Outside Columbus" from their 2003 album In Between Now and Then. Similar to many of the band members, this area of the world grew on me to the point where I can relate to that "Midwest way of ease." This verse in particular (with a little creative license) has struck a chord in my mind as I look back over the past several years:

Surprise, surprise
I traveled here.
Two-thousand miles from where I'm known.
My friends are here.
These three years I've spent
I found I have a second home.

Yes, indeed - I have found my second home, and I couldn't be any happier or more thankful.

Fried Chicken Bender (Pt. 1): Mya's Fried Chicken

Mya's Fried Chicken, a mobile vendor staple of Clintonville since
2012, has come back from hiatus to rejoin the Columbus food scene
In Columbus, fried chicken has become something of the new "in" food, with well-regarded recent arrivals like the Short North's Double Comfort and the former Olde Towne East/current North Market vendor Hot Chicken Takeover (their take on Nashville-style chicken earned them a Best New Restaurant nod by readers of Columbus Alive), and a new entry from across the Pacific Ocean creating some initial good impressions (Korean Fried Chicken purveyor Bonchon in Northwest Columbus.)

These places have either made a favorable impression on the spouse and I, or are awaiting visits from us in the very near future. However, all the hubbub over the past year created by these newcomers hasn't made us forget about what now qualifies as relative veteran in this genre, and a veteran that for awhile looked it may have kicked the proverbial chicken bucket.

Mya's Fried Chicken mobile food truck had been a regular fixture in its Clintonville location next to the Super Food Mart convenience store since its opening in the summer of 2012. Owner Mark Tolentino, a professional chef with nearly 17 years of experience in the restaurant and catering scene on the East Coast and Ohio prior to starting Mya's, not only loved southern-style fried chicken, but also found it hard to find it around the Columbus area. This inspiration, in combination with the increasingly burgeoning food truck scene, brought Mya's to life.

Mya's not only offers a tasty selection of Southern Fried
Chicken styled items, but accentuates their menu with
special Filipino cuisine offerings
Along with its very delicious rendition of fried chicken, Mya's also stood out with their occasional delving into Filipino cuisine, another cuisine that is not found much around the Columbus metro. On their Filipino nights, the owners did a good job of introducing locals to some of this cuisine's basic dishes, producing solid renditions of pancit (the Filipino version of lo mein or chow mein), adobo (meat stewed with vinegar and other various spices and sauces), lumpia (a Filipino egg roll) and leche flan, a sweet custard dessert.)

Everything seemed to be operating as normal when on an early weekend in September 2014, a post on Mya's Facebook page reported food truck problems and a closure over the weekend to get them fixed. The hiatus lasted well beyond that weekend, however, with an October Facebook post from Mark stating that his food truck was going on hiatus but that the ultimate aim was to reopen in the near future.

And then, nothing. I had originally written and initially finished this blog post on Mya's a day or so prior to the first post reporting the truck issues in September. This post, like the truck, stood in hiatus as every check back on their Facebook page came up with no new updates as to the food truck's fate, I wondered if both this blog post and the tasty fried chicken & biscuit sliders would be my last mementos from this mobile vendor.

Finally, a source in the know indicated that Mya's may be stirring to life soon, and a Facebook post from owner Mark confirmed the good news: they were gearing up for a comeback. There were a combination of factors for the hiatus mentioned in the post, but in reality, the fact that they were coming back was by far the most important detail.

Mya's re-opening day in May, in a new location in Clintonville at
North High and North Broadway, saw enthusiastic
crowds, a grateful owner and that delicious fried chicken
We dropped by on Mya's reopening day of May 14th at their new location just a little farther up North High Street but still smack dab in Clintonville. The first thing we noticed was the space was a lot more roomy than their previous convenience store location, with more spots to park and a couple tables set up in front of the nearby office building for those who wanted to dine there. The second thing we noticed was the enthusiastic crowd, all seemingly long-time fans happy and ready to welcome an old friend was back in the neighborhood again.

And the food? The fried chicken was as crispy and juicy as we had remembered it; along with a collection of solid sides (our favorite is their Mac and Cheese), it made for a terrific dinner.

Mark himself came out of the truck to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who was waiting for their orders, and during my brief chat with him, he promised Mya's would eventually go back to similar operating hours before the hiatus as well as more special Filipino cuisine nights. But for the time being, Mya's will be sticking with limited dinner hours (Thursday thru Saturday 4:30 PM - 7:30 PM.)

Mya's Fried Chicken
3400 N High St (Clintonville)
Columbus, OH 43202
(614) 464-9999
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Vienna Calling: Grünauer (Kansas City, MO)

Grünauer offers Kansas City natives and visitors an Austrian-styled
dining experience from their Freight House location
Kansas City's Freight House, located in the city's Crossroads Arts District, has something of a similar story as Columbus' Union Station in the Short North. In both cases, both buildings were vital when the train was king, and both slowly fell into disrepair and neglect as other forms of transportation like automobiles and trucks became the main modes.

Unlike Union Station, which was torn down in favor of newer development, Kansas City's Freight House was saved from destruction by investors who renovated the structure into restaurant spaces, including Lidia Bastianich's Italian-cuisine-based eatery Lidia's and Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, a higher-end major player in Kansas City's barbecue scene. City Tavern had been the third restaurant at this building until 2010 when it closed; in its place came something of what seemed to be an upscale version of Columbus-area eateries Mozart's and Schmidt's.

Grünauer offers a more relaxed setting outdoors and a more intimate one
within, with more formal table settings, high ceilings and a dabbling of
artistic flair appropriate for the neighborhood and building.
Grünauer, opened by the chef of the same name (Peter Grünauer, owner and operator of several well-regarded restaurants in New York including the once four-star-rated Vienna 79), is meant to recreate the experience of family's restaurant back in Austria for diners of Kansas City. Both eateries are firmly ensconced in artistic districts of their respective cities, and Grünauer offers a subdued artistic vibe within the interior's high ceilings and brick- and tile-lined walls. This visit essentially served as our fancier, dating-anniversary dinner during our road trip to and from Colorado.

The food (and likewise the prices) rates as a step up from what Columbus-area diners would find at places like Mozart's and Schmidt's. Aside from the wurst, schnitzel and goulash, Grünauer offers classic Austrian dishes such as Tafelspitz (beef in a consomme, with root vegetables and apple horseradish, chive, and creamed spinach sauces), variations on Rostbraten (center-cut strip loin), and Kalbsleber Berliner Art (sautéed veal liver with mashed potatoes and caramelized apples.)

Paired with German-styled beers, our selections of Paprikahuhn (top
(top right) and Schweinebraten (bottom right) turned out to be
delicious selections off of Grünauer's Viennese-based menu
We wanted to grab something we couldn't get in Columbus, so we went with the Schweinebraten (roast pork loin and shoulder with bread dumplings and red cabbage) and my spouse went with the Paprikahuhn (chicken breast grilled with paprika, plus spätzle with a creamy paprika sauce and pickled vegetables.) Both were quite köstlich, and paired with our German-styled beers (while Grünauer offers mainly German-produced beers, they do have a few select American craft brewers including Kansas City-based brewers KC Bier and Boulevard) our dinner and the restaurant itself proved to be a perfect setting to catch our breath a bit and relax before the final leg of our journey back to Ohio.

101 West 22nd St
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 283-3234
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Handshakes and Johnnycakes: Philco Bar + Diner

The front of the Short North-based Philco Bar + Diner
Columbus' Short North has a plethora of eateries, many of which are marked by large crowds and much fanfare. Philco had been one of those places, rising up from long-time neighborhood stalwart Phillip's Coney Island and opening up during one of the biggest weekends in the area (ComFest) back in 2013.

Since then, numerous places have earned the "latest and greatest" destination eatery title in this vibrant neighborhood, and Philco, located in a section of the neighborhood with very similar storefronts, is very easy to drive or walk by when you're looking for places to stop for a bite to eat. This effect was quite noticeable to me: not having visited during its initial fanfare, I passed by here numerous times either alone or with my spouse after the hubbub had faded without paying this eatery much mind. It was almost like a revelation that first time I walked by here and finally noticed its presence. "Oh yeah, Philco!" I remember thinking to myself as I spied their sign.

Philco's retro hip feel is matched up with a fancier take
on some traditional greasy spoon diner dishes.
Philco will never remind anyone of the old traditional greasy spoon dine visually; rather, it sports a cool, retro vibe with fashion touches like a subway tiled wall, steel counters and leather-backed booths. While there is a certain hipness to the entire package, the atmosphere is fairly relaxed, and the crowds are rarely loud and they cut across all types. I've seen suit-and-tie clad luncheons with business types, older couples on a date, a couple of dudes who look like they could be truck drivers, and everything in between during my visits.

L-R clockwise: Johnnycake Sliders with fresh-cut fries; Mac-n-Mornay
with a Rockmill Brewery saison; Huevos Rancheros
Food-wise, the items may appear at first glance similar to those of a greasy-spoon, but careful reading of the menu and the ingredients used (many of them locally sourced) show that Philco's takes are modest-sized meal portions with a modest-quality jump over the usual diner fare. All dishes I have there from the Johnnycake sliders (with excellent fresh cut fries), the Mac-n-Mornay, and their Huevos Rancheros (Philco serves breakfast all day long) have been quite flavorful and satisfying. Paired up with a craft beer (Philco features select tap handles from local Ohio craft brewers) or a slice of pie from Just Pies, and you'll have yourself a complete meal.

Philco definitely falls into the neighborhood hangout spot, but one that's worth a visit for those outside the area. One of the more unique endings to a meal happened here at Philco, where my server and I ended up with a short conversation after I had finished my meal, followed with a handshake. I don't think I've ever ended a meal before with a handshake, but it was a pretty nice topper to pretty darn good experience.

Philco Bar + Diner
747 North High St (Short North)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 299-9933
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The Ice Cream Chronicles (Vol. 11): The Tale of Two Mitchell's (San Francisco, CA/Cleveland, OH)

It may have been the ninth store built, but the Ohio City neighborhood
location of Mitchell's Ice Cream, located in an old theater, has quickly
ascended to be the flagship store of this Cleveland-area business.
The recent spate of summer-styled weather reminded me it was about time to revive a mini-segment of posts that kind of took a life of their own last year. This season's first candidate is one I know by name, but is really two entities. One of those I grew up with as a kid, while the other I first sighted late last year on a visit to Northeast Ohio. This shared name, in fact, has become the source of some unknowing mis-identification by numerous Twitter users trying to rave over ice cream they were tasting from these two same-named entities on social media.

Despite the confusion, I already knew one was a longtime favorite, while one was I heard great things about. So why not a double post about the ice cream known as Mitchell's?

For me as a kid, Mitchell's Ice Cream was something that my grandpa would bring home as a treat for me and my siblings on a regular basis, and no matter what the flavor, it was devoured in short order. This particular Mitchell's, now a Bay Area institution, was opened up in the 1950s sporting 19 fairly standard flavors and an old-school ice cream with a distinct mouth-coating texture (due to its high butterfat content.) These days, however, it is the tropical and Filipino-styled favors like Halo Halo, Ube and Buko that provide as much if not more of a draw for ice cream lovers than the more traditional flavors. In fact, this ice creamery was the first in the Bay Area to introduce Mango as an ice cream flavor; this proved to be an instant hit and remains the store's most popular flavor.

Their small, cramped storefront on San Jose Avenue, located at the merge of the San Francisco's Mission District and Noe Valley neighborhoods, typically has lines out the door, with a "take-a-number" system for those wanting to purchase cones, bowls and other ice cream and frozen confections. Thankfully, the store keeps one cash register open specifically for those who want to pick up pre-packed half-gallon tubs from their freezers, so customers (and there are many) can get in and out in fairly quick amount of time. Mitchell's ice cream is also served by the scoop by a select number of scoop shops/restaurants; a number of grocery stores also sell the pre-packed half-gallon tubs.

There is a distinct lack of parking close to the store (the store's small parking lot in the back is often full); for auto-bound customers, it helps to have a "partner in crime" to get into line while the other tries to park the car. Tourists who want to pay Mitchell's a visit may be best served by taking public transit and walking a few blocks over to their shop, or even taking a taxi for a visit.

Mitchell's (San Francisco) offers old-school ice cream with a tropical
twist, including this combo of Ube (purple yam) and Lucuma, a fruit
from the South America Andes Mountain regions.
Here in Ohio, Mitchell's is a Cleveland-area institution that started in 1999 with a focus on the use of local and/or sustainably-produced ingredients. Their current flagship location, which I had the chance to visit, is actually the company's ninth store, but it's easy to see early why their parlor at the former Rialto Theater in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood has ascended to the prime spot for a visit.

It's quite easy to picture the trappings of an old-time structure when you look
 Mitchell's (Cleveland) expansive and remade main parlor area.
The main parlor space is clean and expansive with lots of seating; it's easy to picture the counter that now holds ice cream-filled cases being a concession stand for the old theater. If you look carefully behind the servers, you'll find that the journey is just beginning; glass windows give a hint of the production facility located behind the parlor area. Customers can scoot on over to the back to get a closer look: not only will you find more seating but get a closer look at the employees and the myriad of ice cream production equipment. A stairway to the second level allows you to glance down from overhead into the area; it reminded me a bit of the experience we had taking the Jelly Belly Factory Tour in Fairfield, California.

Mitchell's (Ohio) ice cream production from the side and above; plus
but a small sample of the works of art found throughout the building.
Mitchell's Ohio seems to stay in the wheel of traditional flavors sprinkled with some more novel seasonal offerings. In similar fashion to last year ice cream samplings, I grabbed a trio of scoops, including my traditional pick of butter pecan, plus something simple (strawberry) and a seasonal (their Great Lakes Brewing Porter Chocolate Chip.)

With the small batch production, the texture of Mitchell's ice creams fall between Jeni's and a more commercial-styled ice cream like Velvet. Of the three, I enjoyed the perfect blend of tart and sweet that the strawberry gave me. Their take on Butter Pecan was also quite nice, with hints of butterscotch and sea salt adding some complexity. I didn't quite get as much of a porter taste profile as I would've liked with the GLBC ice cream; however, I did love the irregularly-chunked dark chocolate chips. It reminded quite a bit of the wildly-sized chocolate chunks you get in Graeter's french pot processed ice creams that feature chocolate chips.

Both Mitchell's Ice Cream franchises are basically area-only enterprises; for anyone visiting either the San Francisco or Cleveland areas, these same-named (but not the same company) ice cream makers are well worth the stop.

And yes, there is also a Mitchell's Ice Cream (not the same as either) in Chicago as well. I'm thinking I'm going to have to make it a trifecta one of these days, right?

Mitchell's Ice Cream - San Francisco
688 San Jose Ave (Bernal Heights)
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 648-2300
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Mitchell's Ice Cream -  Cleveland
1867 W 25th St (Ohio City)
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 861-2799
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Aller guten Dinge sind drei: Hofbräuhaus

A collection of sights from the three Hofbräuhaus brewpubs located in
Ohio and Northern Kentucky (Cleveland, Columbus & Newport, KY)
There is no doubt that the original Hofbräuhaus, located in Munich, Germany, has seen its share of and played its own role in the history of Germany. But no matter what the politics or world crises that has surrounded this brewpub, it has been the beer, brewed by standards dictated by the Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516, that has been the unifying factor for the millions that have paid this institution a visit since its founding in 1589.

The fame of the original Hofbräuhaus grew to international proportions after World War II, as soldiers returning from the battlefields sported mugs with their logo, dignitaries from various countries dropped by to be seen and/or have a brew, and the location became a tourist destination for anyone visiting Munich. This popularity led to the establishment of numerous branches of the brewery worldwide, starting within Germany itself and later spreading within Europe. The first non-European branch was established in Australia in 1968; the United States branches started in 2003 with the Hofbräuhaus in Newport, KY, which lies within the greater Cincinnati metro area (as of now, the closest establishment to my old home area current lies in Sin City aka Las Vegas, NV.)

My first journey to Ohio was focused mainly in the Cincinnati area, and the Hofbräuhaus in Newport was the ultimate reward for my friends and I after running double-digit miles in the Queen City's well-run and popular (with runners and locals alike) Flying Pig Marathon.

My travels since have now taken me to the other two Hofbräuhausen located in the Ohio area (Cleveland and Columbus) and the formula that I found at the Newport location is pretty much the same at the other two. These establishments all sport a large-sized hall with bench-style seating, serve traditional Bavarian-styled beer in large or super-large steins, provide diners with large-portioned/average-tasting German food dishes (Schmidt's in Columbus rates a notch higher cuisine-wise in my book) and offer up energetic German polka-style music.

While the general formula is the same, all three Ohio-area outposts sport some aspects that are unique to each location. The Newport location is not only the oldest of the three but also sports the largest interior space. Cleveland's Hofbräuhaus is conveniently located next to Playhouse Square, providing patrons of that establishment a chance a more flamboyant option to grab a cold brew before and/or after a show. Finally, the Columbus version offers the option of a quieter upstairs area to diners who don't care to be inundated with the loud clamor of music, clapping, dancing and general conversation.

As alluded in the German phrase used in the post title, three times has been the charm for Hofbräuhaus in regard to Ohio. But in some ways, three may not be the optimal number in terms of the average diner gaining the most from perhaps one of the world's original brewpubs. The general Hofbräuhaus atmosphere combined with decent (not great) food and solidly tasty beer really is truly best appreciated by people who are looking for camaraderie, itching for conversation and sporting a willingness to let their hair down a bit. Those descriptors generally are found with larger groups of people, whether it be family celebrations, end-of-the-week worker gatherings, or post-event athletic event assemblies (e.g. tired Flying Pig Marathon runners looking for replenishment.) The notion of having fun cuts across all cultures, and Hofbräuhaus can most certainly perform that task quite easily, provided you have the right attitude. A willingness to look silly flailing to oompah rhythms won't hurt either. 

Hofbräuhaus - Cincinnati/Northern KY
200 E 3rd St
Newport, KY 41071
(859) 491-7200
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Hofbräuhaus - Columbus
800 Goodale Blvd (Grandview Heights)
Columbus, OH 43212
(614) 294-2437
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Hofbräuhaus - Cleveland
1550 Chester Ave (Theater District)
Cleveland, OH 44114
(216) 621-2337
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Kansas Quick Bites: Seoul USA (Salina) and Gella's Diner/Lb. Brewing (Hays)

The front of Salina's Seoul USA Korean Restaurant
Interstate 70 scrapes the northern edges of the town of Salina, KS; if you want to drive into the downtown or the more populated south side, you will have to dip southward on to old US Route 40 or venture down on Interstate 135 towards the regional airport and Central Mall. The latter is the detour we took down to find the modest strip mall eatery that is Seoul USA.

Seoul USA offers tasty Korean basic dishes and
friendly a friendly demeanor to Salina diners.
I'll start off immediately by saying the food here are mostly the basics (bulgogi, kalbi, etc.) and the somewhat toned-down flavor profiles probably would disappoint hardcore aficionados of Korean cuisine. With that said, our visit to Seoul USA was enjoyable - the staff behind the counter were welcoming and friendly, with numerous regulars in house or stopping by as during our time there.

The banchan was a serve-yourself affair, allowing customers to try a little of everything and/or focus on their favorites. And our food overall (we ordered ordered japchae and bulgogi) was pleasantly tasty and priced reasonably.

We try our best to vary our cuisines on our longer road trips, and finding something that wasn't traditional "American" style eats isn't too easy smack dab in the Heartland of America. Seoul USA proved to be a nice little culinary diversion on our journey to Colorado, and it seemed to us that this eatery has established itself as a neighborhood destination for the residents of this Kansas town.

Seoul USA
2100 South 9th St. Suite A
Salina, KS 67401
(785) 404-2114
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Hays, Kansas, has emerged from a wild west frontier existence (the Army established Fort Fletcher, later Fort Hays, nearby to help protect stage wagons on a nearby trail) and several notable natural and man-made disasters to become the largest town in the region with a population of around 20,000. Hays also qualifies as a college town - Fort Hays University, founded in 1902, boasts an enrollment of 11,000 students.

We have learned in our craft beer pursuits that a brewery need not be located in an area with a large populace, nor does it have to be a fancy setup (an impromptu tap system in an light industrial space serves as the tap room area for quite a few microbreweries.) We knew Gella's Diner and Lb Brewing was a slight step above that level, but we didn't realize how many steps they were above that level until we actually stopped in for lunch on our return to Ohio.

Gella's Diner/Lb. Brewing offers beer and pub-style food favorites
inside a space featuring a modern rustic feel with hints of nostalgia.
Gella's/Lb. Brewing sports a fairly substantial interior, falling fairly close in size to Dublin, Ohio's 101 Beer Kitchen or Columbus' expanded Wolfs Ridge Brewing. Their current brewery space, opened in 2005, is actually the conglomeration of four storefronts in the town's old Chestnut Street district, itself the focus of continued revitalization efforts. Painted murals, based on old historical photos and businesses in the area, and unique uses of implements like egg baskets as decor, add a nostalgic touch to the rustic-modern feel of the interior.

Of note also is their beer - a few Lb. (the Lb. is short for "liquid bread") Brewing's takes on traditional styles have won their share of medals at both the Great American Beer Fest and the World Beer Cup. My spouse decided to go that route with a pint of their 2013-GABF Gold Medal Winner American Hefeweisen; she detected some lager-like characteristics but found it to be quite enjoyable. No medal winners on my side of the ledger, but the Brownell Brown Ale was something I could drink on a daily basis, with a nice balance of hops and malts and a hint of chocolate.

Gella's/Lb. presents a fairly traditional pub/American-style menu for the diner, with perhaps a little more non-meat oriented offerings than typical and a nice half-and-half lunch special pairing up a half-a-sandwich with various sides for a good price. We decided to go with the standard issue Club Sandwich with Gella's potato chips and a Falafel Pita for our orders - they were nothing earth-shattering taste-wise but more than adequate in this little bastion of satisfying beer offerings on the northwest Kansas plains.

Gella's Diner & Lb. Brewing Company
117 East 11th St.
Hays, KS 67601
(785) 621-2739
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An Effing(ham) Nice Surprise: Firefly Grill (Effingham, IL)

Unlike the nearby proclaimed World's Largest Cross, Effingham's
still substantial Firefly Grill isn't as easily seen from the freeway
A fairly memorable review I read about this restaurant (I'm paraphrasing a bit here) declared that this restaurant's location was as if an alien spacecraft had stolen a good restaurant from a more renowned dining city to take back to its home planet. When the aliens discovered they had been sighted by Earth-bound authorities, they hastily dropped their cargo, including the restaurant, in the middle of proverbial nowhere USA.

Effingham, Illinois isn't really that small (the last census puts the town at just over 12,000 people) nor is it really in the middle of nowhere, lying at the junction of two Interstate highways and two train lines. Still, to find something like a fancy eatery here like the Firefly Grill within these city limits, which is chock full of chain-style restaurants, is still quite surprising.

Firefly Grill is the brainchild of husband and wife team Niall (a professional chef who has worked with well-known chefs like Bradley Ordgen) and Kristie Campbell, a former equities trader. They were in Effingham for a friend's wedding when they observed that there really wasn't anywhere in town to eat. Within weeks, the idea to establish such a restaurant in town, as crazy an idea as it may have seemed (the closest major metropolitan area to Effingham is St. Louis, roughly one-and-a-half hours away), began to percolate and on Fat Tuesday, 2006, the Firefly Grill officially opened for business.

The first encounter the spouse and I had with this eatery was during the move out for me to Ohio. We had read hints that this eatery did exist, but the directions provided by our hotel staff seemed to put us seemingly on an isolated country road more suited for teenagers trying to escape the clutches of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. However, as we drove down the road, the glow from this rather large building emerged almost oasis-like in our sights on what was a cold, misty Midwest December evening.

On that initial visit, we both had been craving pizza and were treated to some fairly tasty pies (of Columbus' pizzas, they remind me of Harvest Pizzeria's creations.) On the start of our recent trip to Colorado, we were due to arrive in Effingham right around lunch, so we were eager to stop by the Firefly Grill for our second visit.

The Firefly Grill's vaguely barn-shaped structure holds lots of indoor and
outdoor seating, a bar area, and family photographs of the proprietors.
Arriving in the daytime and outside of the winter season allowed us to see much more of the Firefly Grill than we did on our first visit. We noticed the presence of outdoor seating both in the front and rear of the property; those who sit in the back can grab a view of a small lake stocked with a variety of fish. The facility has turned out to be a perfect spot for many to host weddings or related receptions (the restaurant can seat over 300 people during the summer.) The restaurant has also gotten accolades for its ecologically-friendly practices, earning an acknowledgement from Bon Appetit magazine in 2008.

While some of the staples we saw lat time were on the menu (the brick oven pizza that we enjoyed last visit was available), the offerings on Firefly Grill's menu rotate with the seasonal offerings in both produce and proteins and cover the gamut of cuisines (offerings included Bhutanese Fried Red Rice, Szechuan Pork Shank and Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles. Throw in the $10 specials menu as well as this day's St. Patrick's Day-oriented dinner option ($55 got you a black Irish lamb stew, corned beef with Brussels Sprouts and buttered heirloom potatoes, and a triple-layer ganache Guinness chocolate cake), choosing which delicious-sounding dish to have was a little bit more a challenge than normal.

Firefly Grill has plenty on the menu, including Fish and Chips and a Corned
Beef Reuben that we ordered as a nod to St. Patrick's Day
While we couldn't do the full dinner due to our travel status, we decided to at least tip a hat to the day's festivities with an order of Fish and Chips ($12) and a Firefly Reuben Sandwich ($14). They made for a satisfying and filling meal which got us nicely through to our dinner destination that night of Kansas City.

From a traveler's perspective, Effingham may always remain that modest-sized freeway town whose culinary offerings are geared to the grab-and-go traveler; however, Firefly Grill has shown that even out here, there is the room for a more upscale concept to thrive.

Firefly Grill
1810 Ave. of Midamerica
Effingham, IL 62401
(217) 342-2002
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