You Can Never Go Home Again.
I’m trying to “be a tourist in my own city,” as many guidebooks recommend after an extended period of travel. While yes, I did marvel at some of Cincy’s late-19th century architecture and its gorgeous skyline that I never tire of looking at…
The first question I ask when encountering a new city is: what do they eat?
Although most traditional “Cincinnati foods” (Chili, coneys, barbecue and pizza with sauces that are sweeter than most) aren’t veg-friendly, there are a few places within walking distance that I used to frequent.
There’s Shanghai Mama’s, near 6th and Main, downtown. Decorated to look like a 1920’s noodle house, this place boasts late-night hours and lots of vegetarian options (faux ribs!). Big, comforting portions, affordable prices. And they make excellent (or maybe just large) martinis.
If you are hungry and don’t eat meat, don’t go to Nada, on 6th and Walnut. (Because you’ll leave feeling as though you ate… do I need to say it? Nada. There, I said it, I’m sorry.)
I’ve been there a bajillion times and I’m just not sure why. They do have yummy vegetarian tacos (I want to believe they’re vegan once you hold the cheese and sour cream! hahaha), salads, beans and rice, chips and salsa/guacamole, but the portions for the mains are more appetizer/side dish-y.
But, if you go somewhere else (Shanghai Mama’s?) for dinner and feel like having a margarita afterward, Nada’s a trendy place to see and be seen. I saw Nick Lachey there once. He wasn’t eating or singing or doing anything productive, just standing near the entrance surrounded by other non-eaters. On a separate occasion, I also saw some possible cokeheads–a guy I ended up dating for a few months proudly and knowledgeably pointed them out to me, on our first date—but that’s not important.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah.
Ummm… there’s also Dewey’s pizza, which is the only pizza I like without cheese. They have “gourmet” ingredients–kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms–the fancy kind. But no picture, because, uh, they’re a chain. So there. And strangely enough, I can’t really comment on the quality of their alcohol, either. I know!
And we’ve already been to Andy’s home-away-from-home, Chipotle, several million times. Vegetarian burrito bowls, yay. They also have good, STRONG, no-frills margaritas that will make your face hurt with laughter and glee… (Yes, I realize that Chipotle is a chain–a much bigger chain than Dewey’s–and yet I managed to get my camera out and get a picture of their food. Well, I was drunk at Chipotle!)
Unlike the aforementioned restaurants, Melt is not within walking distance of my apartment. It is in Northside, a short bus ride away… a bus ride I used to look forward to on Sundays, when they serve brunch. This cute, brightly-colored little place with vintage tables and chairs and strange art and tattoo- and hair-dye-happy staff was my hangout. It was my treat.
Do you know what it’s like to be a vegan and be able to go to a place where the staff gets it? And the menu has several things you can choose from that don’t have animal parts in them? It’s a fantastic feeling. In the good ol’ days when I lived on Main Street and the bus stop to get to Melt was right outside my building, if I only had $10 in my wallet on a Friday, I probably would have saved it for Sunday brunch. Total fanatic.
And they don’t serve alcohol. And the portion sizes could be larger for some items. But I loved them anyway. :)
My favorite brunch item was the Rosemary Redskin Mess. Strange name for what I thought was a pretty well-constructed dish. At the bottom was baby spinach. Sometimes this would have been the first time in days I’d even seen a leafy vegetable–I lived on frozen/canned stuff. On top of the spinach there would be crisp, oven-roasted redskin potatoes with rosemary. Next, a small amount of tofu scramble. Then a few tomato slices. Then, the cheese!! Not real cheese of course, but a thick, smoky faux cheddar sauce that was scrumptious. Is it wrong that I used to ask for extra, on the side? Tee hee!
Now that I’m back from France, where being a vegan is a little bit (not a lot) tougher than it is in the US, I was hoping for a taste of familiarity.
I even asked the owner of Melt via email if I could cook with her. She wrote back insisting that the kitchen’s too small. Ah well, it’s not like I haven’t heard that one before.
Last Thursday, I went there for the first time in several months. The woman at the counter remembered me and said she hadn’t seen me in a while. Good start. I ordered my weekday usual: Yee-Haw BBQ Sandwich, add pickles. She asked me if I wanted that with chicken, seitan or tempeh. Tempeh, please.
I asked her to make my sandwich “veggie-style,” a phrase I saw on the menu. (Or at least I thought I did.) This turned out to be an error on my part–although there are at least a couple signs clearly stating, “Please tell us if you’re vegan,” I assumed that seeing as how she’d taken the exact same sandwich order from me several times I wouldn’t have to be so explicit. Okay, okay, my mistake. (It wouldn’t have hurt her, though, to ask me.)
Anyway, the sandwich was as I ordered, except it had real cheese on it. The server, a different woman, stomped into the dining area, and (since she also instantly recognized me from my multiple visits), asked in a not-so-indoor voice, “Now are you a vegan? Because this has cheese on it…”
All the other diners’ eyes were on us as I told her that yes, I’m a vegan, and that I thought I ordered in the correct manner. She informed me that next time I should say I’m a vegan because the only things on the menu that are automatically vegan are this, that, and the other. I was mortified.
I eventually got another sandwich. And I enjoyed it. But I felt different about Melt.
However, brunch was still on the horizon. I got there at 11:30AM last Sunday, 1/2 hour after the restaurant opened. I’d ignored a very important rule concerning brunch at Melt: be there before they open.
The line was already out the door. And it was raining a little. And I had no umbrella. For 15 minutes, I listened to the fashionably-dressed students behind me discuss their travels, but could never figure out where they had been because the word “like” made up 75% of their vocabulary.
When I reached the counter, I placed my order and before I could out myself as a vegan, she asked. Good start.
The only seat available was near the kitchen, but that didn’t bother me. I watched the servers rush to and fro, watched the cooks, watched a guy get the “next-time-tell-us-you’re-a-vegan” lecture, as his sandwich contained meat instead of seitan. Sheesh, didn’t he know the rules? Those signs are there for a reason, people.
As she placed my food in front of me, the server informed me–casually–that there had been a mistake with my ticket and my food had just been sitting there until they figured out who it belonged to.
My Rosemary Redskin Mess was a mess, indeed.
It was lukewarm. The cheezy sauce looked curdled. The potatoes were mostly overcooked on the outside, undercooked inside. Two leaves of spinach.
Did I complain? No, because I’m a wuss and would rather blog about it instead. I ate the whole thing. But I knew I could have done better if I’d cooked it myself, even without instruction from the owner.
Another customer brought his plate to the kitchen and asked if they could microwave it. No, but they could put it in the oven. The cooks put it in the oven and forgot about it, until the server gently reminded them. Was it now burnt? I don’t know. But I really didn’t want to go through all that.
I’m too old for this. I’m not cool enough for this place anymore–was I ever? I don’t have the patience anymore.
I will do better if I cook it myself.
And that’s how I feel about a lot of my old haunts now–I don’t need them or their food as much as I used to. It’s not that my cooking skills have gotten better, maybe I’m just more confident now. Maybe traveling has turned me into more of a snob. Maybe it made me more frugal and therefore less willing to spend money on things that are just so-so or too trendy or too…I don’t know.
Pretending to be a tourist is a really good idea right now.
You can never go home again, they say.