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Beyond Breakfast: Hot Chicken Takeover

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Columbus is going chicken crazy right now, and there’s good reason for it. We’ve got lots of chicken. And it’s mostly fried. Our family has been fans of Mya’s Fried Chicken from the beginning, and being Clintonville residents it’s one of our favorite neighborhood dining spots. However, now we’ve also got reason to trek across town for fried chicken. Three words: Hot Chicken Takeover.

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Hot Chicken Takeover is a, well, takeover of the kitchen at the Near East Side Cooperative Market. The Market is on the corner of Oak and Ohio in Olde Towne East, down the street from spots like L’Appat Patisserie and Angry Baker. Joe DeLoss and his crew fry up anywhere from 250-350 meals each weekend day. They’re set up simply with an ordering window (labeled the “chicken window”), long picnic tables under a tent, and a station with sweet tea, water, ranch dressing, and silverware. It’s about as simple as can be, and in my experience, something that is well done and simple can be stellar.

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What is hot chicken? I had never heard of it before HCT opened up. Hot chicken is a popular Nashville serving of fried chicken, in which the breading is heavily dosed with spices like cayenne pepper. The chicken is served on a slice of white bread and topped with pickles. I enjoy a good bit of spice, so I relished the burn on my lips. What’s even better, though, is the meat. They’ve brined it and fried it perfectly, so it’s super juicy and a little salty. Joe said the hot chicken clocks in around 60,000 Scovilles, but if you’re a real hot-head, they served the “Holy Chicken,” which boosts the heat to over 100,000. I love some spice, but that’s probably too much for me.

The chicken brings plenty of heat, but there’s balance to it, too. Each meal is served with a creamy mac & cheese and a sweet cole slaw. You also get refills of a lovely sweet tea and access to rich home-made ranch. Every element works together, and each one nails the mark.

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HCT serves “Cold Chicken,” too. Not temperature cold, but similar cuts with less heat. This was helpful when ordering for our boys. They like some heat, but the hot chicken would have overwhelmed them. The cold chicken is just as juicy and it’s served with the same sides. The meals were big enough that got two – one hot and one cold – and split them between the four of us.

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I didn’t know what hot chicken was before, but I know now – and goodness, I’ve been missing out all these years. HCT will become another regular spot for us, for sure, and I’m really excited to see what happens with them in the future.

Important note: as of now the takeover runs Saturday and Sunday from 12-4pm. I’ve heard tell of long lines, but we strolled right up when stopping by mid-afternoon. They close when they sell out, so it’s a good idea to watch their Facebook page for availability. Joe does a good job of providing updates with the number of meals left for the day.

If you want to visit:
Hot Chicken Takeover
1117 Oak St. (on the side of the Near East Side Cooperative Market)
Columbus, OH 43205
(614) 800-4538
Open 12-4 Saturday and Sunday (they close when they sell out)
facebook.com/hotchickentakeover

Cuco’s Taqueria | Columbus, OH

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Cuco’s Taqueria (Facebook / @CucosTaqueria)
2162 W. Henderson Rd. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43220
(614) 538-8701
Open Mon-Sat, 8a-10p (bfast served till 11)
Accepts cash & debit/credit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Thursday, July 10, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

In the world of Columbus Mexican restaurants, Cuco’s has long been an easy go-to. Our tastes in Mexican fare have changed over the years as we’ve gotten to know less Americanized taco trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants, but Cuco’s little Henderson Road strip mall location is still familiar and cozy.

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The restaurant feels just like you’d expect most American-based Mexican restaurants to look: bright colors, signage from popular beers like Corona and Modelo, boisterous Spanish-language music.

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If you’ve been to Cuco’s for dinner, especially on a weekend, you know to expect a wait. The margaritas will be flowing and the salsa bar well stocked. But there’s plenty of room at breakfast. Not to say there aren’t customers – we witnessed a steady stream coming and going – but the early hours are a little more subdued. (Hint: this would make it ideal for a larger group.)

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The breakfast menu takes up one page. Asterisks are penned in next to a few items. We didn’t ask why. Popular dishes? Specialties?

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Notice that there are some straightforwardly American breakfasts: omelets, hotcakes, and the Plato Americano. My recommendation, though, is to try something you haven’t had before, like machaca, moyetes, or chilaquiles. Even huevos con chorizo.

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I ordered coffee with my breakfast. It’s basic diner brown.

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Chips and salsa aren’t normally brought to the table at breakfast, but our server offered to bring some when we asked just for salsa.IMG_3245

 

Our boys split the huevos rancheros. Like all the dishes we had, they weren’t as heavily seasoned as we normally prefer, but they’re served in generous portions at a very good price point. The huevos (two fried eggs) are layered onto tortillas and covered with a red ranchero sauce, with rice, refried beans, and cheese.

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We also chose the oaxaqueña, a platter of three enchiladas stuffed with eggs and potatoes and generously doused with a black bean sauce. They’re big, starchy, and filling.

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I’m almost always in a mood for chorizo when it comes to Mexican breakfasts, so I eyed El Tapatio Platter. It mixes two barbacoa tacos (served like street tacos on two corn tortillas and topped with fresh onion and cilantro), two eggs, and chorizo mixed with potatoes, plus a side of refried beans. All very likable. The barbacoa wasn’t quite as juicy or as heavily spiced as I prefer it, but the chorizo adds a nice kick to the whole dish.

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The waiting area of Cuco’s includes market shelves of beer, sodas, hot sauces, and other ingredients to take home. So you get a little sense of a small, local marketplace and the little taqueria.

It’s funny how a place that’s so busy at night can be so quiet in the mornings. Again, this isn’t say Cuco’s isn’t undiscovered for breakfast (I mean, some guy wrote about it in a breakfast book), but it feels like a hidden gem. Which makes it a comfortable place for breakfast, and a flavorful option if you’re looking to change up your routine a bit.

Cuco's Mexican Taqueria on Urbanspoon

AJ’s Cafe | Columbus, OH

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AJ’s Cafe (Facebook / @AjaysCafe)
152 E. State St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 223-3999
Open Mon-Fri, 7:30a-3p; Sat, 11a-5p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

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We were very sad when Taj Mahal Indian Restaurant closed last fall; it was a favorite stop for Indian food, and a regular place to take out-of-town visitors. (It’s since been replaced by the also-good Mughal Darbar.) One of our favorite things about Taj was being greeted by Ajay Kumar. Ajay’s family owned the restaurant; his father started it over 25 years ago, and it was one of the first Indian restaurants in Columbus. Ajay shared an especially warm welcome and a friendly handshake, and we were especially sad to lose that when the restaurant closed.

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Fortunately for us (and the rest of Columbus, I guess), Ajay has worked his way back toward opening his own cafe – AJ’s Cafe downtown. While it’s not exclusively an Indian restaurant, he’s still up to a lot of good things, he’s still offering the welcoming smile, and some Indian flavors have naturally crept onto the menu.

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The cafe is in a good-sized space at the corners of State St. and North Fourth St. (formerly the C-Town Market). It’s a couple blocks east of the Ohio Statehouse, and is easily visible while jetting up Fourth (Fourth is one-way, but State is two-way). There’s plenty of metered parking lining the streets.

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As you might expect from a downtown cafe, the focus is on simpler grab-and-go items. Expect to see quickly-made hot sandwiches and wraps + pre-made cold sandwiches. This is in addition to assorted bagels, drinks and some locally baked snacks.

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Ajay serves Upper Cup Coffee from nearby Olde Towne East.

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He also makes a ginger spiced chai, a hot concoction of black tea, milk, and spices like ginger and cardamom.

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On our two visits to the cafe, we tried both breakfast and lunch dishes. Ajay was especially proud to show off a house-made potato salad, which is seasoned perfectly. I love me some potato salad, and this was up there with some of the best I’ve had.

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We combined some breakfast and lunch (there’s got to be a word for that) with the zen wrap and the lentil and spinach soup. The wrap mixes rice, spinach, lentils, sliced carrots and apples, and a tamarind-cilantro vinaigrette. It’s a nice refreshing combination – I think it needed a little more vinaigrette. The soup is rich but light-bodied and little lemony. Both dishes are vegan, too!

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The bacon and egg wrap is just what it sounds like: a wrap with scrambled eggs, cheese, and bacon. Simple but well executed.

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A good example of the Indian flavors making their way onto the menu is the raja wrap. It features tandoori chicken, rice, red onion, jalapenos, and a cilantro chutney familiar from the Taj Mahal days. Other good Indian examples are the CTM wrap, made with chicken tikka masala, and the spiced chickpea wrap. I’m hoping that Ajay can continue to distinguish his cafe with these flavor profiles.

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If Indian food isn’t your favorite (and why isn’t it?!), the cafe offers lunch classics like a corned beef reuben, a turkey meatball sub, a tilapia sandwich, and the Bourbon St. Philly with spicy chicken.

AJ’s Cafe obviously has competition downtown, but it’s close to some crowded buildings, and there’s enough interesting dishes to set it apart from nearby options. And you can’t beat the warm welcome from Ajay and his crew! If anything, we’re glad to have the chance to see him on a regular basis and experience his hospitality again.

Aj's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Philco Bar + Diner | Columbus, OH

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Philco Bar + Diner (Facebook / Instagram @philcobd)
747 N. High St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 299-9933
Open Mon-Thurs, 8a-11p; Fri, 8a-12a; Sat, 9a-12a; Sun, 9a-11p (bfast served all day)
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Thursday, May 22, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.

At the risk of sounding like one of the old folks, it amazes me how much Short North has changed in the twelve years we’ve lived in Columbus. We lived in the heart of Short North our first two years in town, and we’re just now approaching the status of “Back when I lived in Short North…” So, without further ado… back when I lived in Short North, we had Philip’s Coney Island. It was small, cheap, and basic. To be honest, though, we rarely visited. Sure, there were cheap hot dogs and fries, but it didn’t have the same draw as other neighborhood eateries like Press Grill, Mac’s, Betty’s.

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On pace with Short North’s development in recent years, the Philip’s Coney Island space was reborn of late as Philco Bar + Diner, led by the same team as The Rossi, Club 185, Little Palace, etc. The name itself is a nod to the previous life (Philip’s Coney -> Philco), and they’ve retained a sense of the old place, with booths, counter seats, and yes, coneys on the menu. But the revamp has made the space hipper and (in my opinion) a little more comfortable. Plus they’ve added a fine selection of beer and wine.

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The new space certainly feels much classier than the old, with green leather stools and booths, wine racks over the bar, and wood or stainless steel accents.

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There’s still some feeling of the old restaurant, though, where you can sit at the counter and eat hot dogs, with bottled ketchup and mustard on hand. The menu also includes revamped versions of French fries, coneys, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

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There are also your expected booths, which are big enough to fit probably eight people on busy Gallery Hop nights.

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The breakfast menu follows suit with rich, colorful, and sometimes deconstructed versions of diner classics. We split three dishes amongst the family, starting with the biscuits and red eye gravy. Ohio is more sausage gravy territory than red eye gravy, so you don’t see it too often here. Red eye gravy is more of a Southern dish, typically made with the day’s leftover coffee and the pan drippings from frying ham, bacon, or sausage. Our server made sure we understood which type of gravy we were getting, as previous customers have been surprised to receive a lighter and much sweeter gravy than a chunky, cream-based one.

Philco’s biscuits and gravy are dense and rich. The gravy, which leans more toward the sweet side, soaks into the biscuits, and it’s offset by smokey and salty andouille sausage, then topped with two eggs cooked to order (and sprinkled with paprika).

The portion sizes aren’t huge at Philco, but they make up for it by packing a punch.

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Our server recommended the fried egg tacos. Ironically, they don’t automatically come with fried eggs; you can have them cooked to order, so we asked for them scrambled. Again, the tacos aren’t huge, but they’re rich and filling. They’re topped with various salsas (red + black bean & corn), sour cream, and cheddar. And we added the chorizo. (Because when you have the option to add chorizo, you always do.)

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Finally, we chose the huevos rancheros, built on a base of open-face tortillas and eggs. It’s flavored with a verde salsa and a sprinkling of cotija (a white Mexican cheese). Big bonus for the crispy and flavorful grilled peppers and onions. And we added chorizo because, well, you know.

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Our breakfast dishes went three for three at Philco. Again, the portion size isn’t huge (which some might expect from the “diner” moniker), but they make up for it with big flavors in really colorful presentations. In my mind, this makes Philco an easy choice for breakfast in Short North.

(Also, I know weekends are busy and feature an expanded brunch menu, but don’t forget the value of quiet weekday breakfast, too. Philco opens at 8!)

Philco Bar + Diner on Urbanspoon

RIDEhome | Worthington, OH

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RIDEhome (Facebook / @RideHome43085)
650 High St. (map it!)
Worthington, OH 43085
(614) 468-1409
Open Mon-Sat, 7a-9p; Sun, 12-5p
Accepts cash & credit/debit

Visited: Saturday, May 3 at 11:00 a.m.

With the closing a Scottie McBean a while back, Olde Worthington has been looking for good coffee. Fortunately, it’s well provided-for through Sassafras Bakery armed with Cafe Brioso brews and La Chatelaine‘s consistent presence. Stepping in to further fill the gap is RIDEhome, which is more bike shop than coffee shop, but still serves local beans in pour overs.

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RIDEhome is nestled in the corner of the small strip featuring House Wine, The Candle Lab, and Rivage Atlantic, amongst other things. The coffee shop counter is located near the back and further beyond it is a small sitting/reading area with couches, chairs, and shelves.

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They offer coffee and tea currently. If you pay cash with your order, you get the full experience of their old-timey cash register One cup of coffee retails at $3.50.

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They’re serving Crimson Cup blends and seem to have the pour over process down, complete with Hario kettles. If you’re looking for drive-through speed coffee, this isn’t your stop, but the pour over is generally a strong way to prep a cup of coffee. The process makes it ideal (and I’m sure this was the plan) for wandering the shop and checking out bikes or bike parts while you wait.

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There’s a small shelf with Crimson Cup beans, and they recently had a visit from Worthington-based roaster Roaming Goat Coffee, too.

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If you’re not in a rush, or you’re in the midst of wandering the Worthington Farmers Market, you can sit and relax in the far back.

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Take some time, too, to check all the bikes.

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RIDEhome is helping fill the coffee needs of Worthington, especially the Olde Worthington crowd and the early risers. It’s nice to see them serving local brews and using proper methods, so if you’re in need of caffeination and you’re in the hood, you have another stop available to you.

RIDEhome on Urbanspoon

The Hungry Soul Cafe | Columbus, OH

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The Hungry Soul Cafe
(Facebook)

30 S. Young St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 224-1944
Open Mon-Fri, 11a-2p, 5-8p; brunch on Sun, 9a-2p (alcohol served after 11)
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Sunday, May 4, 2014, at 12:30p

You hear a lot of shops, restaurants, parks, bike paths, neighborhoods referred to as “hidden gems.” These places are special. They’re hidden and known only to you and few others. And it’s important to have hidden gems peppered around a big city like Columbus. It gives us our special places to visit or hide out. It makes it worth our time exploring the city and discovering corners we’ve never visited. If you’re a regular at a hidden gem, you sometimes don’t want them to be discovered by others. A once quiet spot might now be overrun by latecomers who are only now discovering what you’ve known all along.

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If you’re one of those latecomers, however, you get to enjoy the thrill of discovering a new place. That’s what brings me to The Hungry Soul Cafe. To be clear: I’m not the first to discover the restaurant. It’s been open for a couple years (as Hungry Soul – it’s been a restaurant for much, much longer) and many folks have written about it. But this was our first discovery, and the restaurant’s side street (but still very exposed) location and the low-ceilinged, wood-appointed interior feel exactly like a hidden gem should.

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Hungry Soul is situated on South Young Street downtown, just a couple blocks south of East Broad, on the street level of a parking garage – yes, a parking garage. There’s a green awning over the doorway and big, red lettering across the fully windowed wall to mark the restaurant. Nearby surface lots offer parking, but the streets are full of parking meters (which are free on Sundays!).

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The space runs the length of the building, with a main floor that’s carpeted and includes the bar and long rows of tables. An upper level is built entirely of wood – floors, tables, benches – and really speaks to the age of the space. We sat up in this area, and I couldn’t stop staring at the woodwork. Not that it was particularly ornate; it was just so unexpected in a cafe at the bottom of a parking garage.

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This little booth, for instance, just cracked me up.

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Lucky for you we brunched with a big group, so you get a sampling of the full menu. Our boys, for instance, split the Hungry Soul, a plate of eggs, meat, toast, hash browns, and a Belgian waffle. Extra points for nicely browned potatoes, homemade sausage, and a big, thick waffle.

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Special bonus if you like to spike your brunch with a drink: $5.00 Bloody Marys and mimosas. The Bloody Mary was a real winner: a generous amount of vodka, seasoned salt on the rim, appropriately spicy, garnished with olives.

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Hungry Soul’s brunch menu mixes American breakfast classics with a little Hungarian vibe and a touch of soul food. (Oh, I think I just got the restaurant’s name: Hungry Soul = Hungary + Soul.) One such combination is the Palacsinta or Hungarian crepes: thin, sweet crepes filled with different combinations. We ordered the Mama’s Apples featuring southern flavors like apples, apple butter, and sausage.

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Oatmeal lovers will find both plain and fancy versions on Hungry Soul’s brunch menu. The plain – called The Intern – is topped with butter and cinnamon and a side of syrup. The three fancy options like apples and raisins or bacon. We choose Fancy #2, with peaches cooked in bourbon butter sauce.

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It wasn’t all sweet for us. I can rarely turn down a good biscuits and gravy, and Hungry Soul’s did not disappoint. The house-made sage sausage gravy is incredibly chunky, the biscuits soft and chewy.

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The menu includes six omelets ranging from meat-heavy to veggie-friendly.

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They’re all served with sides of toast, hash browns, and colorful fruit.

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Lastly, the Comfort on a Plate exemplifies the cafe’s soul-feeding mantra. It’s just like the Hungry Soul dish minus the waffle, but it’s still a plateful of down-home cooking.

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Hungry Soul has all the right elements to be a regular brunch spot: a solidly earns the “hidden gem” distinction, but for the sake of owners Anita and Georger Keller and all discerning Columbus brunchers, I hope it doesn’t stay hidden for long.

The Hungry Soul Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ethyl & Tank | Columbus, OH

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Ethyl & Tank (Facebook / @EthylTank)
19 E. 13th Ave. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43201
Open 7a-2a (full brunch served weekends; smaller bfast menu 7-11a weekdays)
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/Y/Y
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 10:30 am

Have you heard about this newer place called Ethyl & Tank? It’s a coffee shop close to Ohio State’s campus. Oh, it’s also a bar with a solid 40 taps of beer. And they’re a restaurant serving burgers, tacos, and brisket. Plus, they’ve got an arcade.

Yes, Ethyl & Tank is a little bit of everything, established to serve the student population surrounding them, but accessible to everyone.

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About a block east of High Street – easily walkable but reachable by car only via side streets – is Ethyl & Tank’s long brown brick building, marked by a perpendicular neon sign. Enter through the corner doors and you’ve run into the coffee shop aspect, labeled “Ethyl” in neon. Ethyl sports a full coffee shop menu – cappucinos, machiatos, pour overs – and more.

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Keep moving and you’ll run into “Tank,” or the bar/restaurant. The large open space is very nicely appointed: leather bar stools, exposed ceilings, brick walls, wood floor. Combined with big windows and a patio out front, the space is bright and welcoming.

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Over the poured concrete bar are rows of TVs, so if you’re also looking for a sports bar: check.

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The second level – with more seating, tables, and a small arcade – opens onto the main space.

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The brunch menu covers a couple pages, and it’s focused on big dishes that pack a punch. Fried Egg Chicken Fried Steak? Biscuits and Chorizo Gravy? Creme Brulee Crepes? They’re not messing around. Notice the availability of some vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free items, too.

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We started brunch with a sample of a blend mocha from the coffee shop. It was nicely whipped without being overly sweet. When I first reached to pick it up, I was surprised at its lightness; I expected the thick, heavy sludge of a corporate coffee shop frozen-uccuino.

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And here’s something else to entice you: the $5.00 Bloody Mary bar. This may be some people’s favorite phrase in the English language. You can’t do a good brunch without a good Bloody Mary, so Ethyl & Tank give you a glass of vodka then turns you lose on the accoutrement.

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Everyone likes their Bloody Mary the way they like it. Some like it spicy, some like it mild. Some love garnishes, some love it salty, some like everything pickled involved. Ethyl & Tank gets your started with base mixes ranging from mild to mega spicy.

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Down the line, jars are laden with olives, pickles, peppers, fresh horseradish, chilies, jalapenos.

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At the end are bottles of hot sauce, steak sauce, and jars of salts and powders.

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The challenge with build-your-own Bloody Mary’s is that sometimes you don’t know where to start. In this case a list of suggested additions might be helpful, but with E&T’s pre-made mixes, you’re off to a good start. Here’s the end result of our Bloody Mary.

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By the time we assembled our Bloody Mary and sipped our coffee, brunch arrived. And arrive it did. We split three dishes between our family of four and still had leftovers.

First, which I pretty much had to order, was the chicken and waffles sandwich. It’s a crispy breaded chicken breast served between two waffles (were they Eggo? If so, it didn’t matter) with bacon, a thin coating of melted cheddar, and syrup. It came with a side of thin-cut fries – just how we like them. All in all, it’s a solid dish. The chicken was cooked through and through, but the seasoning was spot on and the syrup and soft waffles made up the difference. I know some people still don’t get the whole chicken and waffles thing, but trust me: you need to try the dish. It’s a little sweet, a little salty, a little spicy. This is what “they” mean when they talk about a balanced breakfast.

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And if chicken and waffles weren’t big enough, we went even bigger with the Tank Pancakes. Just. Look. At. This. Dish.

Tank Pancakes are three big but not ridiculously fluffy pancakes stacked and covered with pulled pork, cheddar, and a Jameson maple syrup. Yes, this dish might seem too over-the-top, but seriously: we loved it. Again, the sweet and spicy balanced each other out. There’s not too much cheese (which could have done the dish in), the pork is tender, and the pancakes are already soaked just right in the syrup. This leaves them soft without being mushy. You’re given a bottle of syrup, but you don’t need it. Another benefit to this dish: it’s perfect for sharing.

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We rounded out brunch with the Breakfast Burger and another side of fries.

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I’ve been craving burgers lately – it must be the turn toward spring – and this hit the spot. It’s built simply with a ground beef patty, lettuce, onion, tomato, cheddar, mayo. The real selling point is a fried egg (to qualify it as breakfast) but also a thin layer of chorizo between the beef and the egg. This little kick of spice adds a certain something that really makes it stand out.

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Of course, before leaving we had to visit the arcade. The games are all set to free play and with plenty of classics to re-visit (Pac Man, Rampage, TMNT, Terminator 2, Street Fighter). It was clear that some customers visit just to grab coffee and play games.

I’m sure you can guess already, but we were impressed with Ethyl & Tank. It was really unexpected, from the well-appointed space, to the breadth of the offerings, to the brunch menu. We were also impressed with the prices, which clearly must be kept in an affordable range for the nearby college students.

Ethyl & Tank is owned by same the folks who own The Crest in Clintonville. Our experience there for brunch was so-so, but The Crest is still going strong, and Ethyl & Tank seems to capitalize on similar strengths. And while The Crest maybe suffered from a little over-hype when they opened a year ago (not necessarily their fault), the opposite seems to be true for Ethyl & Tank. It’s sailed under the radar (at least for us) and so offers a surprising experience. We’ve already added it to the list of places to visit again and bring some out-of-town visitors along.

Ethyl & Tank on Urbanspoon

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