Category Archives: Restaurant

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.



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.

Estilo Brazil


Cuisine: Brazilian
5818 Columbus Square, Columbus, OH 43231
(614) 269-8990
Open Monday-Saturday
The last time we visited Estilo Brazil at it’s old location on Cleveland Ave., we were charmed by the flavors of the cuisine and the tropical vibe of their small side patio. We also could clearly see that the tiny back-of-the-market space just wasn’t up to the task of producing much food or accommodating many guests… especially in Central Ohio’s temepramental climate.

With the opening of their new, larger Columbus Square location, the seating’s better, the menu’s expanded, and the concept is clearer – alongside the bright, clean market sits a Brazilian PF, or ‘prato feito’, a popular traditional style of Brazilian dining.

PF is described as the working man’s meal, and as such we’d say that the working man has it pretty well off. The fundamentals are straightforward – beans, rice, a starch or two (usually fries), salad (potato or lettuce), and a rotating roster of proteins. For us, the proteins are what makes the concept shine.

Currently, two options are consistent – the linguica calabrese and picanha. The linguica, a spiced pork sausage reminiscent of a Filipino longaniza sans sweetness, makes for a pleasant and generously portioned accompaniment to the beans and rice, but the picanha, strips of beef sirloin rump cap, steals the show. Picanha is sliced so that each strip features a small knob of gristle-free fat at one end, and cut against the grain so that a reasonable degree of tenderness compliments the deeply beefy flavor of the cut. First timers can opt for half longaniza and half picanha, which makes for a good overview.


A rotating third meat option is also available, and as of both visits it was described as a Brazilian version of a chicken stroganoff. Tempting though it was, the picanha and linguica won out for us both times.

Ordering is simple as the entire operation is structured as a cafeteria line. Once you’re at the beginning, lids come off of all of the food and it’s as easy as pointing to what you want. With small quantities of food being staged, the kitchen seemed busy with preparing refills for the steam table and as such freshness was consistently high.

One of the consistent sides is Paçoca de pilão, dried beef that is mixed with toasted cassava flour and ground until very fine.


All of the dishes we tried were almost entirely devoid of spicy heat, but the remedy awaits, should you desire it, in the form of a variety of bottles of hot sauces on the counter. Beverages are limited to cashew fruit and passion fruit juice, though a wide selection of bottled and canned drinks are available in the market.

Portions are generous, and a run through the line will set you back $11, which strikes us as a bargain. In the context of Columbus Square offerings, Estilo Brazil may not feature the most exotic or adventurous range of flavors, but it’ll undoubtedly provide a damned good square meal at a reasonable price.


Secret Vessel

Secret Vessel

2620 N High St, Columbus, OH 43202
(614) 636-4720

Hot pot is a term that is thrown around fairly freely in local Chinese restaurants – if a dish has a soup base and a source of heat beneath it to keep it simmering, most will list it as hot pot (at least in the English translations). As we understand it, however, Chinese patrons have a different definition, and it involves a significantly more elaborate set up. Secret Vessel is first restaurant in town to focus on cook-at-the-table hotpot.

Before we get into what that is exactly, it needs to be said that we stumbled into being Secret Vessel’s absolute first paying customers, and it was clear that they were not yet entirely up to full operating standards. They handled this with immense grace, and the food displayed so many unique and wonderful traits that we felt we needed to share our experience even at this early point in their evolution.


So, back to hot pot, Chinese style, which is the vast majority of what Secret Vessel does. Broken down to its basics, there are 3 distinct elements – a broth simmering atop a table top induction burner, prepared ingredients on the side to dip into the broth, and sauces that you can dip your prepared ingredients into after they come out of the broth. All of these are customizable, and many options are available for each.

There are four broth options – Szechuan, Tomato, Hong Kong satay, and a clean, light Signature flavor. All can be had at one time in a bowl divided into quadrants. We did this, and found ourselves particularly enjoying the tomato broth, less than fond of the satay broth, and perfectly content with the other two. As broths become depleted, the attentive servers refill them. As far as we could tell there was no vegetarian broth option.

chinese hot pot in Columbus ohio

The range of ingredients is vast, and is divided into 8 distinct categories – meats, seafood/fish, meatballs, bean products (essentially tofus), fungi (mushrooms), vegetables, ‘other’, and finally, combinations (assembled plates from the previous categories). We ordered the ‘angus boneless ribeye combo’ (beef slices, tripe, beef balls, tofu, cabbage, bean curd, white mushroom), and were given a couple of extras (shrimp balls, lamb slices) to, I suspect, gauge our reactions to them.


Across the board, we were impressed with the freshness of the ingredients – it was conspicuous in the flavor of everything we tried, and elevated it well beyond anything we’d had before in a hot pot (or ‘hot pot’) setting. The lamb and beef were lovely, and both the beef balls and the shrimp balls were hand made in house (a rarity). Both were genuinely among the best things I’ve tasted in some time. Even the mushrooms and the tofu were transformed from something ho-hum into perfect flavor-packed bites after a few minutes of bathing in the tomato broth.

A wide range of sauces were clearly laid out on a bar, and as it was explained to us, the idea is that a customer who opts for the sauce bar ($2.99/person) can ladle multiple sauces into a bowl and mix them to their satisfaction. Being new to this game, we asked the owner to mix a couple up for us. We dutifully dipped our simmered mushrooms and the like into the sauces, admired the owners ability to concoct such edifying combinations, and ultimately appreciated the flavor of the simmered ingredients without the sauces (they struck us as good, but they served to cover the exceptional flavor of the ingredients themselves).


Quality has a price, and in this case it was just under $60.00 for two. For all we were provided, the obvious labor involved in creating it, and the satisfaction provided, we’d call it a solid deal. We’re looking forward to returning, and especially to trying the full meatball assortment.


Namaste Restaurant Indo-Nepali
1279 Morse Rd, Columbus, OH 43229
(614) 261-3636

Almost nervously, the server pulled me aside to ask, “you like the taste?”. It was as though she didn’t believe us when we had eagerly volunteered that we enjoyed what we were eating several times previously.
More than just enjoy it, which we truly did, we were surprised. We’d been to Namaste a while back, and had not thought much of it, but a good Nepali friend suggested that the food had improved markedly and that the menu had changed for the better. This, as it turns out, was an understatement.
Dishes hit the table right as they were finished by the kitchen, and everything was served piping hot. First came the bhatmas chiura – a spicy snack of smashed rice flakes, fried soybeans, minced chilis, onions, and spices. It was intensely flavorful, crunchy, dry by intent, and presumably meant to be paired with beer. Which we did (Haywards, highly recommended). Off to a good start.
nepali snack food
Next came the hand-made momos – quite possibly the most iconic of Nepalese dishes. Similar to a steamed Japanese gyoza in form and concept, these were filled with minced chicken, onion, garlic, and just enough ginger to make itself known. A pleasantly savory tomato-based sauce accompanied, and in total the dish amounted to a crave-worthy alternative to the various dumplings more commonly found locally in other Asian cuisines.
nepali momo in Columbus
Dal, essentially a lentil stew, is ubiquitous among Indian-influenced cuisines. At worst, it’s a near-Dickensian gruel, and at best, it’s… okay. Namaste’s mung dal was better than that, and then better yet again – it was delicious, and the first example of the dish I’d eagerly recommend to vegetarians and carnivores alike.
The meat-free options don’t end there, either. The aloo saag, a potato and mustard leaf stew, impressed with its bold and novel flavor combinations, and the aloo bodi tama (typically ‘pre-order only’, but available on our visit) was equally enjoyable and equally unique with it’s intriguing combination of black eyed peas and bamboo shoots. We’d order either again in a heartbeat.
nepalese restaurant columbus
Finally, an order of goat sekuwa arrived. Think of the tastiest tandoori chicken you’ve tried, but with goat instead, and you’ll just about be there, except for the fact that it’s just about impossible to convey how well the tandoor treatment works with the flavor of goat. The flesh is almost inevitably on the chewy side (most cuts of goat respond better to a slow cooking method than to a high-heat grilling), but it didn’t diminish our enjoyment one bit.
goat sekuwa
It’s become increasingly rare that we come across restaurants whose flavors and preparations truly expand the sum total of novel food experiences in the city, but Namaste emphatically does. To us, from our little niche within the food world, that makes them an addition of importance.
Namaste also offers thali platters (individual meals made up of a variety of dishes) on weekdays and a buffet on the weekend. Catering is available, and at first glance at least looked reasonably priced.

nepali restaurant columbus