For the past 10 years, Jay Erisman has built The Party Source’s liquor inventory into one of the region’s most comprehensive retail collections, and is highly regarded for having the most impressive selection of bourbon in the nation (he keeps hundreds of varieties). When he’s not visiting distilleries, he teaches the wine and spirits tastings for EQ at The Party Source, as well as an occasional cooking class. No wonder he’s always in fine spirits.
Pho Lang Thang From the moment I saw the menu in their Findlay Market window, I knew I would fall in love. I don’t want typical Thai or indifferent Indian, I just want bomb-ass Asian food prepared with love. Even with its small menu, PLT sets the pace in Cincinnati for immersive, truth-telling Asian flavor. In a courageous act of restaurateurmanship, they served balut for their New Year’s. Go ahead. Google balut. Yes, they are that serious. 114 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 376-9177, facebook.com/dothelangthang
Honey Perhaps the most underrated restaurant in Cincinnati, where Chef Shoshannah Hafner clearly exploits her hip-yet-humble real estate in Northside for a great deal in fine dining. I love the Midwestern terroir of the thick grass-fed rib eye, and the multi-hued fries might be the best in town. Great brunch and wine list, too. 4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside, (513) 541-4300, honeynorthside.com
Jean-Robert’s Table As Eric Clapton once said of his favorite Fender Stratocaster, a meal at JR’s is like falling into a pool of warm water. The elegant yet comfortable room, the rich yet balanced food, the service of classic French sauces—throw in the paddlefish entrées and I am completely netted. 713 Vine St., downtown, (513) 621-4777, jrtable.com
Skyline Chili, Ludlow and Clifton Ave. Look, I love me a whole lot of Cincinnati chili: the fresh garlic at Dixie, the meaty brew at Camp Washington, the small-town vibe of Cretan Grill in Carthage, all of them classics. But anytime I tuck into a four-way and it does not have the particular flavor of the Skyline on Ludlow, a little part of me sighs in resignation (In a parallel universe I am still 4 years old and sneaking oyster crackers from the waitresses’ station). The Clifton Skyline is the best chili parlor, the centering exercise of the tao of chili-spaghetti. Amen. 290 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, (513) 221-2142, skylinechili.com
La Mexicana It’s smart (brain taco!). It’s got guts (tripe taco!), and goats (birria taco). And it’s old school (the huitlacoche taco, made with a corn-mushroom that equates to a Meso-American truffle). Consider it the antipode to Taco Hell and Donny P’s. 642 Monmouth St., Newport, (859) 261-6112
Senate Critics in fancier cities proclaim the gastropub passé. I cannot fathom why, and I can’t forget what a debt we owe to Senate for showing a way forward, adhering to a rigorous demand for great flavor in humble trappings that is missing at so many spots. The poutine alone is a call to arms. And how did I ever get through third grade without foie gras on my PB&J? 1212 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 421-2020, senatepub.com
Habañero On a weekly and monthly basis, it is my most satisfying restaurant. I am indebted to the honestly blazing habañero sauce, the good-for-you spinach-cabbage toppings, the seared pork burritos, the housemade chips. A joint with the soul that can only come from hand-cast originality. 358 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, (513) 961-6800, habanerolatin.com
Terry’s Turf Club My favorite place to take visiting Scotch whisky experts, Terry’s never fails to impress with its outlandish decor, vintage beer coolers, and especially the comically excellent burgers. It pleases me no end to have one of America’s great burger joints right here in our fine city. 4618 Eastern Ave., Linwood, (513) 533-4222
Local 127 Everybody and his brother cooks pork belly these days, but when a restaurant allies itself with a farmer/charcutier program that breeds pigs designed for the express purpose of dry-aging their legs, you have something really special. Local 127 leaves no hoof unturned in their quest for porcine goodness, which always plays well in a town with the nickname of Porkopolis. 413 Vine St., downtown, (513) 721-1345, mylocal127.com
Mekong Thai Along with most Chinese (King Wok is a notable exception) and Indian restaurants, I have a hard time getting impressed with Thai spots around town: they all make the same things, all the time. Finally I have found Mekong, in Kenwood. The owner is from Laos, and has a few off-menu specialties from her hometown that will hard rock the world of any Asian food aficionado. Ask for the papaya salad, Lao-style, and buckle your seat belt for big-time flavor from one river city to another. 7687 Montgomery Rd., Kenwood, (513) 791-7565
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