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Feature Fri Mar 20 2009
My version of traveling often includes some fumbling around with a map. I like to plot out the exceptionally appealing vegan-friendly spots before leaving home. In unfamiliar cities, I can then have some fun finding my way - and eating, of course.
Cincinnati, however, is vicariously familiar to me. My vegan friend Dan lives there, and embodies a very special familiarity with the city. We pedaled our bicycles from restaurant to cafe. I'd thrown my bicycle in the back of the friend's car I grabbed a ride with. On my next trip, when I take Megabus, I will be renting a bike. Like walking and transit, bicycling gives me a very intimate feel for the outdoor space. And outdoor space - the space between the buildings as some might say - is one of the items that makes city life so vibrant and social.
There's a bit of a back-story. When Dan lived in Chicago, we co-founded the Veggie Bike and Dine together in 2004. It's an event that promotes bicycling to get around, enjoying conscious food, and celebrating the neighborhoods - and most recently, appreciating community gardens. Going around with Dan in Cincinnati was like having our own private Veggie Bike and Dine. It took a good portion of the day and we ate fabulously while bicycling in the open air through some of the most charming neighborhoods. The steep hills of Cincinnati take some getting used to, but you roll with it. No pun intended. Really. It's especially fun coasting and wiggling downhill.
Saturday morning was about buying bread. And aesthetics. At a quaint storefront bakery, Shadeau Breads, fresh baked loaves sat on racks behind a counter. Here, in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the charm is also outside. Historic row houses line up for blocks and blocks. Storefronts pepper the commercial strips. Still, critics might say that the area is blighted; and they're partially right, but they miss the point. Prolific urban architecture can provide freedom and comfort. Storefronts can be just a short walk for all of a resident's essential products and services. Should closed shops be revitalized, one could easily image a vibrant community teeming with friends running into each other strolling along the walkways. And perhaps Over-the-Rhine is much closer to this than some outsiders might think from some broken windows. Dan opened his green general store, Park + Vine, on a block that has since has seen other posh shops move in. Gut rehabs for condos have been popping up and spreading out for some time. Further in, the neighborhood's Findlay Market teems with fresh food and a clean, bright and airy Iris Book Cafe serves coffee and some food among shelves of books. And Dan runs into friends and people he knows throughout the neighborhood.
We fetched our bicycles and were off, up a steep hill to the nice Rohs Street Café, full of tables and lounge seating, in the Clifton Heights neighborhood. We tore pieces off a loaf that I'd brought from the bakery. Each bite tasted ever so brilliant, crispy on the outside and nice, tender and well structured inside. Dried fruit and nuts provided just the right amount of extra chew. We'd return to the cafe once more that day for a second serving of Clover coffee. We were flying. From the coffee. And then we came back a third time to see the cafe quickly morph into a concert venue full of people on the floor in front of those sitting in rows of chairs. Peter Adams and his band jammed it out hard.
I thought back to how Sung Korean Bistro, downtown Cincinnati, took care of us Friday night. My dolsot bibimbab came from a stone bowl hot enough to caramelize the rice and continue steaming through my meal - no egg for vegan. The rice had fused together, with the portion that rested against the hot stone becoming crispy. The rice felt a touch chewy further in, and then finally soft. Our server initially leaned in to mix up the bibimbab until bite-sized blocks of the rice had been tossed about with the bean sprouts, carrot, radish, watercress, lettuce and tofu. Sesame oil perfumed the air. One could smell it immediately upon walking in. And it went brilliantly with Dan's tofu and its sauce, a thick red paste that was deep in flavor, nicely salty, with just a little smooth spice. He ordered extra, as much as he could get, and somehow I was able to convince him to let me pour some of it on my bibimbab.
On the way out of Clifton Heights, just before effortlessly coasting downhill on my bicycle, Dan showed me Clifton Natural Foods. Vegan baked goods congregated at the register and, in the freezer cases beyond a bright produce section, locally made vegan burgers by Five Star Foodies chilled. The next day, Dan would point out a menu in a window a short bit away at Mac's Pizza Pub. The pub felt like a college hangout, with pizza and ground beef burgers. But they also serve the Five Star Foodies vegan burgers in meatless and artichoke flavors, along with an "Award Winning Vegan Pizza." I'm not much for vegan cheeses, but I've been known to be lured by the likes of "gourmet vegan mozzarella cheese," especially when it comes with fresh mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, black and green olives.
Back in Over-the-Rhine, our brunch destination, Tucker's, looked like it might pass on a quick glance for having been closed for months, if not years, from the sidewalk. The facade was tired, and its windows blocked with some sort of shade. A large, worn sign hung from the second floor. One of the few cues that Tucker's was open, besides Dan leading me there, was a much fresher printed banner hanging above the door: "Tucker's Restaurant." Except, of course, that it was bustling inside. Patrons sat along the counter and filled up small booths, sometimes six people deep. Tucker's still looked aging inside, but it was comfortable. Perhaps because it's tight, dimly lit, and narrow. But also, I think, because there was so much going on that everything became a reassuring static - a soothing noise that suggests that your conversation is private because it's just white noise outside your booth. The door seemed to hit a person at the register before it had hardly opened. "D'op," came from a women standing nearby.
I sunk into the booth and noticed why Dan brought me here. The menu clearly advises one to "Ask about Vegan and Vegetarian Options" in large red print with an emphasizing border. The vegan chili, without cheese but plus raw onions, felt a bit like ground beef. I imagine TVP. The huevos rancheros looked to have that same well-seasoned stand-in. It just needed a mad shake of salt, pepper and some hot sauce. The side of fruit salad must have come from the tall glass jar on the counter. In the back, past a hallway for the restroom, a women peeled potatoes across from a large range. The large number of people who came in, recognized and waved to my friend Dan, might speak to the vitality of the community in Over-the-Rhine.
After lunch, I took to a large bit of shopping at Dan's store, Park + Vine. I filled a few bags with clothes, personal care items, and food. A vegan chocolate pecan bar felt crunchy on the outside, sticky and chewy inside, deeply but not sharply sweet, and firm of thick rich chocolate chips of epic proportions. I bought two.
We caught a car ride back up to Clifton Heights for dinner at Myra's Dionysus. We had the good sense to order dessert first, because, as our server told us, Myra's had sold out of the rich and creamy vegan chocolate peanut butter cheesecake by the time we finished dinner. The baba ghanoush looked thick and dark. I hear they use the skins of the eggplant. The hummus was thick and creamy.
Breakfast on Sunday morning was simple - a toasted whole grain English muffin, smothered in natural peanut butter mixed with chocolate. Then we biked for more food - to Melt in Northside. Inside this storefront cafe, I saw large chalkboard menus on the wall above the counter. A line of patrons stretched back to the door. Vegan sausage filled my flaky biscuit sandwich with a cheddar-like vegan cheeze and a few scallions. I crave such a treat when I see ads for a similar English muffin sandwich from a certain ubiquitous fast food chain. Here though, at Melt, a little tofu scramble came as my side. It smelled fragrant of sage and felt juicy. Upon bicycling away, we passed upon another vegan-friendly spot that I've been craving to try: Slims. Next time.
My little private Veggie Bike and Dine lasted a day and a half. But I didn't need to plan it. I was just going with the flow. Just following Dan.
Photos show the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood from previous trips.