Jiu Thai

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Chinese
787 Bethel Rd, Columbus, OH 43214
614.732.5939
Hours: 11:30-9pm (Closed Tuesdays)

Lets not beat around the bush – we love Jiu Thai. We’ve been going there for years, and it’s absolutely criminal that we haven’t written about them until now. Our list of favorites dishes is long, and yesterday we found yet another one.

Specifically, the stir fried lamb ribs. The name is a bit deceiving, since it’s clearly a riff on the cumin lamb found in most restaurants with a Sichuan menu, but for us it’s now the benchmark. The chunks of lamb are thick enough to showcase the flavor and quality of the meat, and their relatively dry stir fry char is spot on. They, along with green peppers and onions, are covered in a Sichuan spice mix that was both instantly recognizable and clearly preferable to previous renditions. With a little spicy heat and a little Sichuan peppercorn zing, it made everything on the plate sing in a way that was almost startling. In a very good way.

We’re not going to get into the details of the rest of the dishes, since it isn’t really the essence of this exercise. Just understand that thick, rustic hand made noodles and dumplings are a mainstay, and that we enthusiastically vouch for the following:

Biang biang noodles (our most frequently ordered dish)

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Pork with picked cabbage or Lamb & onion dumplings

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Xi’an steamed cold noodles

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Big Guy Noodles (and the other noodle soups with hand made noodles)

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Cucumber Salad

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Delicious pork sandwich

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The skewers are fun too.

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Menu is online via postmates. They do a lot of delivery via Ricepo and Amazon Restaurants too.

PS: Here’s the skilled hands in the kitchen at Jiu Thai making handmade noodles.

Enjoy!

 

 

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China House (Westerville)

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5860 Westerville Rd, Westerville, OH 43081
(614) 899-2882

A theory: the further a Chinese restaurant is from OSU, the harder it is for the proprietors to believe that non-Chinese guests could appreciate their traditional preparations. China House is about as far from campus as any restaurant in Central Ohio with a Chinese menu could be, and, well, yes, yes we can use chopsticks. Honestly! We would like to, too. 

Please?

With the sustained application of polite insistence, the desired menus and utensils were acquired. Further efforts yielded these 4 dishes: Broccoli with Lily Bulbs, Seafood Longevity Noodles, Beef Stew Radish, and Wen Chang Chicken. 

We eat a lot of green vegetable preparations in Chinese restaurants, and none have been better than China House’s Broccoli. It’s Chinese broccoli, of course, and the minced lily bulbs made for an intriguing water chestnut-like accompaniment, but the real trick was of a goldilocks nature – not too oily, not too dry, not too salty, not too bland. And, the broccoli wasn’t over cooked (or undercooked!). Just right.

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Beef Stew (with) Radish is a common sight on menus geared towards a Chinese audience. China House’s version was entirely in keeping with previous experiences, featuring tender beef, beef tendon, large chunks of radish, some veg, all in nice thick gravy redolent of Chinese 5 spice. Those of us who enjoy the traditionally assertive 5 spice flavor and are comfortable with the texture of tendon gave it a solid thumb’s up. 

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Seafood Longevity Noodles were a bit divisive – everyone appreciated the flavor and enjoyed the generous portions of shrimp and scallops within, but the mushy texture of the noodles was both argued to be typical of the genre and, to several of us, thought unpleasant.

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The Wen Chang Chicken confounded. It was half a chicken, butchered whole and bone-in, plus head! So far so good – jibes with previous experiences. But, it was covered with what we’re pretty sure was egg roll dipping sauce. There was lots of excessively polite discussion regarding this curiosity at the table, but when we left it was largely untouched. 

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In summation: Four dishes – two hits, two misses. The menu is large, and more exploration would likely yield more gems. Help us!

Menu:

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Does Columbus have any ‘real’ Chinese food?

This question finds its way to us with increasing frequency, both online and in person, from dismissive newcomers to Central Ohio as well as jaded locals. We have plenty to say about it, but first, lets talk about this idea of what’s ‘real’. 

‘Real’, in this context, is almost always used as a synonym for ‘authentic’. To the extent that anyone has the authority to categorize any Chinese food as authentic, it certainly isn’t us. 

What we can do, though – with a little help from our friends – is to distinguish the restaurants that are cooking menu items for the Chinese palate from those that are not. In other words, while we’re not fools enough to believe that we can measure any given restaurant’s success in maintaining absolute fidelity to Chinese culinary tradition, we do believe that our merry band of grazers can discern the intent to appeal to a Chinese audience. And, we can share our thoughts on what we enjoy.

OK, so back to the original question. We have to admit that it evokes a mild sense of indignation in us, as we’ve been enjoying the fruits of many of the city’s delicious Chinese kitchens for years – often with Chinese dining companions – and have felt some measure of pride in the range of options available to a city of our size. I mean, ‘Are there any?’ Of course! How many? 

Time to make a list. 

This was a process full of surprises. Once we made our initial list, and then continued searching, we were astounded by how much it grew. There’s an awful lot out there, and far more than we’ve had the opportunity to experience.

Sounds like a new food adventure to us! Over the next year, we’re going to visit/revisit each one of the restaurants on the list (linked below), and we’re going to try them with as many people as is practically possible so we can try as broad of a range of dishes as possible. We’ll post a brief accounting of each here, and hopefully put that pesky question to rest once and for all. 

The List:

Well, almost there. Please bear in mind that while we’re trying to be complete, we may not have caught everything. If we missed something let us know! Also, please understand that some of these restaurants will only have Chinese-American offerings shown on their website. You have to explore their broader menu in person to get the full story – which is exactly what we intend to do.

After the full list (which also includes markets and bakeries), we’ve taken our first stab at categorizing restaurants by their specialties. This will be refined as our adventure progresses, but is intended to illustrate the breadth of regional and culinary specialization found among the city’s Chinese offerings.

Columbus Chinese Food Guide 

Lotus Grill

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Crosswoods Commons, 150 Hutchinson Ave, Columbus, 43235
614.781.8883

The best reason to go to Lotus Grill is to get the salted pan fried pork. The second best reason is to encounter him. Adorned with bolo tie, long-sleeved country-western button up, and long black hair, he takes customer orders with an economy of words that evinces an Eastwood-esque stoicism, then abruptly punctures this facade as he barks orders back at the kitchen in a furious volley of rapid fire Chinese.

He is in possession of a Chinese menu, written entirely in Chinese. Our first visit to Lotus Grill made it clear he had not given much thought to the idea that anyone who is not Chinese would be interested in this menu. Acquaintance of ours have kindly translated it, and he now possesses that menu as well. We encourage you to ask for it.

Should you do so, you’ll likely be seated. To order from the posted English language Chinese-American menu is to receive counter service, to do otherwise often means full service. He’ll give you time to assemble your order, than he’ll return to the table to take it. Should you have questions, he might or might not have answers. No need to push it, or to sweat it too much – just about everything we’ve tried has been very good, and from our perspective there’s little risk in letting the food answer for him.

For example, ‘salted pan fried pork’ is at best a very incomplete description of our favorite dish, the aforementioned pork cooked with leeks, sliced hot green peppers, and Chinese black beans. With the nice sear on the pork and the pungent kick of black beans, savory doesn’t even begin to describe it. Delicious gets closer.

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‘Pork meatball soup’ translates better; it’s a bowl of comforting broth with noodles, tender Napa cabbage, and an abundance of tasty pork meatballs bearing a seasoning not unlike breakfast sausage. Nicely balanced, and perfect on a cold day, this has been another repeat crowd pleaser.

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Their stir fried seasonal vegetables are an exceptional riff on a common Chinese dish, featuring all of the expected garlic sauce flavor but a small fraction of the oiliness. Possible vegetable options include bok choy, Chinese broccoli, and ‘a choy’, and all play well with the sauce.

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If you’re open to the idea of eating unshelled shrimp (and in Lotus Grill’s hands, you should be) then their salt & pepper shrimp are a must. Battered and fried to an almost tempura-like effect, the shells were far less tough than expected and added a distinctly edifying intensity of flavor. A plate of these disappeared quickly.

Previous visits led to encounters with red-cooked beef, mustard greens with pork shreds (pictured below), kung bo fish, stir fried dry string beans, and more. All were solid, most were significantly better than, and our aggregate experience leaves us eager to explore even more of the 28 item menu.

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On our last visit, he was wearing a Star of David bolo with matching belt buckle. Struggling to put it all together – Chinese background, country western garb, conspicuous Jewish iconography, all one person – I finally had to ask.

“I like confusing people” was the reply.

I smiled. As you can probably gather from his prominence in this write up, a bit of harmless confusion suits me fine. Also, I really enjoyed Firefly.

Momo Ghar

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 1265 MORSE ROAD (inside Saraga Market)
43229 Columbus
(614) 749-2901
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We covered Momo Ghar in Columbus Monthly well before we got the chance to do it here. For a primer on their delicious doings, check it out.

In recent conversations with the owners, they’ve mentioned that they’ve seen a significant uptick in business due to the (well deserved) glowing reviews on social media and elsewhere. Given the intimate lunch counter atmosphere, in which customers are literally facing the owner as they prepare food, they’ve received feedback that has served to refine the menu.

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Thankfully, this hasn’t compromised the integrity of their offering, but rather inspired additional items that expand accessibility of it. The wicked spicy heat of the momo jhol broth has been tamed, though the original is still available (ask for it spicy), and vegetarian momos with the jhol broth are also now available. There’s also a new Eastern Tibetan version on offer.

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About the lunch counter set up – it’s just about the best thing about them. Down side is limited seating, but the upside is a front row seat for the rarest of culinary performances – fresh, quality, made-from-scratch food crafted just for you, in front of you, amid lively banter with the kitchen and customers. If you haven’t checked out these guys, you should.

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Tensuke Express

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Cuisine: Japanese
1155 Old Henderson Rd.
(614) 451-4010

As a born-and-raised-in-the-midwest American who has designed restaurant interior spaces, I always find something vaguely disorienting about Japanese restaurant environments. Everything is extremely orderly and astonishingly similar to what you’d expect from a Western environment, except for when it isn’t, and those minute exceptions accumulate until the mind starts to melt from uncanny valley overload. The new Tensuke Express is like that, times 100, and I love it to the point that I’d go there just to sit in the space and puzzle over it even if the food was awful, which it isn’t.

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Every second restaurant that opens in Columbus has this artful hodgepodge thing going on – mismatched chairs, scads of different light fixtures, fabric and material changes all over the place. Tensuke Express does too, but it doesn’t look like any of the rest of them. At all. While the norm is dark, brooding, reclaimed industrial, Tensuke Express is bright and shiny and new, with yellows and whites dominating. Sure, there are hanging window frames and rope decor elements, but also abaci, framed out room structures with names like ‘curry corner’, and dedicated bins for returning your chopsticks, soup spoons, and just about anything else you might accumulate during the course of your meal. It’s the rarest of things – a restaurant that doesn’t look, or even entirely function, like any other restaurant, but isn’t worse off for it.

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We weren’t the first customer in the space, but we were close enough to it to witness the celebratory picture-taking of the actual first. Restaurants are usually freaking the f*ck out upon open, but there was none of that – everyone we came in contact with (and they were emphatically not understaffed) was absolutely beaming with pride. The Japanese are well known for their reserve, but not even the strictures of culture could contain their unalloyed joy. As such, it was unexpectedly affecting.

So, lets get around to talking about food. Tensuke Express seems set up to primarily be a quick service noodle bar – ramen, soba, or udon. Pick a noodle, pick a broth, pick toppings, pay, get a buzzer that tells you when to pick up your order at the counter. There are some rice bowl and curry options, as well as a few sides, but those are relegated to a paper menu. It’s about the noodle bowls, people!, or so you’d gather from their prominence on the oversized menu boards.

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We got ramen – one tonkotsu with chashu, one miso with spicy pork kimchi. They were served hot, enough so that it actually made sense to slurp as the Japanese do, and to understand why they do it. The noodles were perfect, period. I’ll hazard to guess that they are actually making their own broths in-house, and the effort shows – they might not have been the best I’ve ever had, but they’re good, and better than you’d have any reason to expect on a restaurant’s first day open.

Which is a good enough reason not to delve any deeper into food at this point – they opened strong, but there’s plenty of reason to expect they’ll get even better. We’ve been semi-regulars of the old Tensuke Express, and the only thing that might compromise that is the new sushi bar Tensuke’s owners are putting into the old Tensuke Express space. It should be open in a few weeks, and we’re eager to see it and tell you about it. Stay tuned.

Tốt

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3108 Kingsdale Center
43221 Upper Arlington
(614) 456-7519

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“There’s a lot to be said for experiencing crappy versions of food before you get to the good stuff. It makes the moment of realisation so very much better.”

So said Jay Rayner, perhaps one of the most outspoken and opinionated food writers around. I read his quote at a fortunate moment, shortly after having eaten at Tot and shortly before writing this review.

Point being, there have been enough new ‘bringing Vietnamese to the masses’ restaurant openings lately that it qualifies as a trend, and a trend that hasn’t produced much success. Having endured more than a few disappointing experiences in this vein, Tot surprised by how distinctly it delivered.

Generally speaking, we’ve found that there’s almost an inverse relationship between the amount of effort put into the image of restaurants serving immigrant cuisines and the quality of the food – basically, the better it looks, worse it tastes. Tot looks slick with professional logo and menu design, and an of-the-moment light & bright minimalist interior. Forgive us for thinking it felt like a familiar set up.

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One that led to the need to quickly recalibrate: with the first taste, Tot’s banh mi easily became one of the top 3 in the city. The baguette was toasted, the fillings hit the sandwich’s signature ‘how does something so rich taste so fresh?’ notes, and as I was later told, the pate and the mayonnaise were both made in-house. They’re also getting a nice char on their grilled pork, and it pays off. Good start.

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One that continues with the bun (cold rice noodle bowl).  The first thing you’ll notice is how beautifully it’s presented. Traditionally the elements of the dish are layered – vegetables at the bottom, covered with rice noodles, then meat on top – but Tot composes them so all elements are visible. Since the general idea is to mix them up anyway, there’s no discernible compromise to this approach. Clever, and tasty. We went with grilled pork option again, and not only did it satisfy, it evoked fading memories of the brazier grilled street side versions of this dish when I tried it in Hanoi.

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But what about the pho? Truthfully, we weren’t big fans. The broth was on the thin side, and the flavor seemed to lean a bit too heavily towards the star anise. Everything else seemed right, but the broth is why we get it. Bearing in mind that the restaurant has been open for all of a week, it’s entirely possible that they haven’t worked the kinks out yet.

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A point worth re-emphasizing, especially in light of how much they’ve done well. Even at this early stage, Tot is the first of its kind I’d happily return to, and, have.