I am certainly not one for destination dining – generally keeping fed is a chore rather than a highlight of my travels. Cincinnati, however, seemed to be home to a variety of comfort foods that even my unsophisticated palate might appreciate. Although it was clear that in a city historically referred to as “Porkopolis” I would have to leave my vegetarian preferences at home…
Its signature dish is a curious creation: despite the name, Cincinnati Chili is closer to a pasta sauce in consistency, which makes its pairing with spaghetti less surprising. Although not entirely, as flavour-wise you should be thinking Greek, not Italian, with spices such as cloves and nutmeg in the mix. Also needing an explanation is the way ordering system: most popular is the three-way, which buries the chili spaghetti under shredded cheddar cheese; adding beans and / or onions allows four- and five-ways to be constructed. Instead of a way, you can alternatively opt for a coney, a hot dog replacing the spaghetti as base.
There are dozens of chili parlours in Cincinnati alone, from franchise spots to single-location independents. Exact sauce blends are carefully-guarded secrets, and it’s clear that locals take the question of which is best very seriously.
Rather than trying to determine best, I opted for ubiquitous: operating since 1949, Skyline Chili is the largest chain, with nearly 150 restaurants across four states. I went all in with a five-way, and it was… ok. Whilst I knew not to expect anything like a chili con carne, I was surprised how bland it was – it fell far short of a moussaka, for instance. I realise assessing a dish based on a fast-food version may be unfair, so I’ll just say that if I were to try it again, I’d look to one of the independents. But I’m in no particular rush to do so.
The same cannot be said of another local delicacy, goetta, which I enjoyed so much on Tuesday I sought out more on Wednesday (and I would be disappointed if it didn’t feature on any future trips through Cincinnati).
Wikipedia’s description of it as a meat-and-grain mush may not be immediately appealing, and I doubt a photo helps sell it either, but I really enjoyed the texture and the mix of flavours. Goetta originated from German settlers who formed a large part of the community in Cincinnati in the early to mid 19th century. Findlay market has stood at the heart of the Over The Rhine area since 1855, and Eckerlin Meats was there from day one.
Still family owned, they reckon their home-made blend of beef, pork and oats to be the finest goetta available. Admittedly, there’s not a huge amount of competition – this is an even more local food offering than Cincinnati chili, being essentially unknown beyond the metro area. But I can certainly add my seal of approval to their existing awards, based on a takeaway egg and goetta sandwich which made an excellent first lunch.
My second serving, less than 24 hours later, came courtesy of Sugar N’ Spice. Breakfast is something I think the US does well generally, and goetta makes a fine addition to a plate of eggs and hash browns. The experience was enhanced further by the restaurant being built around a lovingly-restored 1950s diner car: an American design icon which had eluded me until now.
Two other culinary highlights of my visit to Cincinnati came via recommendation rather than research.
For Wednesday’s lunch at Findlay Market, I grabbed a pulled-pork bun from Eli’s BBQ. Another meat-heavy meal that won’t win any awards visually (and the store is pretty bare-bones too), this was nonetheless delicious. A generous portion, too – in fact I’d say everything I ate on this half of the trip was good value for money, in strong contrast to DC’s outrageous pricing.
Obviously Ohio isn’t really barbecue territory, so this wasn’t a specifically regional dish – just a good take on an American classic. My final stop, though, was to try a local delicacy that had found success nationally: Graeter’s. Their “French pot” process leads to a much denser ice cream, and the added chocolate chips would more accurately be described as chunks. So this is decadent stuff – and clearly popular, as even visiting late on a midweek evening the queue was almost out the door. I doubt there is a bad choice to be made from their menu, but I had been advised to try black raspberry chip; having done so, that’s a suggestion I’m happy to share.
More generally, I would definitely encourage a visitor to Cincinnati to sample its food scene, particularly around Findlay Market. A braver diner than me could even track down an 18th century British creation that somehow survives here: mock turtle soup… But for the rest of us, goetta and Graeter’s are probably the way to go!