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

Crosswoods Commons, 150 Hutchinson Ave, Columbus, 43235

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.


‘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.


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.


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.


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


 1265 MORSE ROAD (inside Saraga Market)
43229 Columbus
(614) 749-2901

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.


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.


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.


Tensuke Express


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.


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.


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.


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.



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


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Yemeni Restaurant


5426 Cleveland Avenue
Columbus, 43231
Hours: Monday-Sunday 11am-10pm

Yemeni Restaurant is just 3 months old, and they’re in the 161 & Cleveland avenue area, so the usual mixed bag of immigrant restaurant quirks is in full evidence – unavailable menu items, limited menus to look at, and perhaps understaffed on the service side (but very very kind). The space is spotlessly clean and a bit austere, all soothing greys and wood tones, and the dining room is divided into quadrants. The effect is curious, more that of a tech startup workspace than a place to eat.

Make no mistake, though, the eating is good, and in some respects unlike anything else you can find in the city.

“It’s hot”, the server said, as he rested the cast iron pot of bubbling stew on our table. it was held in a charred wooden box. “Even the box”, he elaborated, and he wasn’t being cautious. Two baskets mounded with flatbread followed, as did another stew and a lamb platter.


We tore bread and dipped pieces into the first pot, called fahsa, and ate. Within a bite, our understanding of the word ‘savory’ was redefined. A bit of googling explained that the dish is primarily meat – often lamb but in this case goat – cooked in its own broth. And, cooked to the point that it lies somewhere between a stew and a porridge.

It has to be said, that even with the wide variety of eating experiences we like to pride ourselves on, we found it strange. We also thought it unreservedly delicious. It’s the kind of fizzy moment worth seeking out – with a taste we’ve experienced something truly new to us, and our world is made ever-so-slightly larger and better off for it.

The other pot contained ‘foul’. Both the dish and the name are common throughout the Arab world, though most we’ve experienced amount to cooked fava beans with accompaniments, while the Yemeni version was closer to a thick chili. We’ll take the slightly spicy and more complex Yemeni style anytime, especially coupled with the flatbread.


The lamb dish, called ‘haneeth’, felt perhaps most familiar – bone-in lamb rested atop basmati rice and trimmed out with spaghetti and potatoes. This was very similar to any of a number of Somali-style platters, with small differences discernible in the flavor of the rice (I’d guess saffron), and the addition of sultanas. The lamb was flavorful, and perhaps just a bit overcooked and under seasoned for our tastes.


Add a clover-forward Adeni-style milk tea and a surprisingly satisfying frothy avocado juice, and that was our meal – which leaves over 80% of the menu unexplored, a percentage we intend to work down. Given our experience, we’d like to suggest that you should, too.

Raspados y Nieves La Laguna


Cuisine: Mexican Desserts and snacks
5455 Norton Center
Columbus, 43228

Long term readers of alt.eats.columbus know that we have a soft spot for eateries hidden in the back of ethnic markets. Recently we’ve found something even more curious – a Mexican dessert cafe that’s hidden behind a laundromat. There’s something a little surreal about walking through a laundromat, with the characteristic smell of detergent and dryers, and then suddenly finding yourself in a spacious restaurant offering milkshakes, smoothies, fruit cups and ice cream.


Raspados are the biggest seller at Laguna. For the uninitiated, these are shaved ice cups that are flavored with mostly homemade syrups, condensed milk and other toppings. At Laguna they are adorned by an umbrella. For their Mexican customers who love a combination of sweet, icy and spicy the most popular is the Diablito which is topped with homemade tamarind syrup, lime juice, chamoy sauce, spicy powder, hot tamarind candy and chopped mango. Chamoy is made from pickled fruit and is salty, sweet, spicy and sour. The ice is shaved to order and it’s fun to watch them assemble the raspados. We enjoyed the nuez (pecan).
Other novelties include lagunadas which are comprised of diced fruit, sorbet, chamoy sauce, spicy powder and hot tamarind candy. Esquimos or ‘skimos’ are a traditional type of Mexican milkshake that is made with milk, sweetened condensed milk and a flavor and are foamed in a special machine to make the drink light and airy. American style milkshakes are also available.
Laguna served over a dozen flavors of homemade ice cream with flavors ranging from dragon fruit to burnt milk. Mango is pictured below. The paletas (Mexican popsicles) aren’t made in house but they have plans to make their own as the business grows. Snacks, fruit juices and a wide variety of fruit cups are also available. There’s a lot of variety to explore.
Laguna is a great summer stop if you’re out on the west side looking for something sweet, cool and a little different. Spice is optional. We’d also recommend a stop at Playa Larga’s taco truck, a little further south on Norton Road for some shrimp empanadas and ceviche.