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Ohio, the “Heart of It All,” as its slogan proclaims, is the seventh-most-populous state in the nation. So you can expect a wide variety of culinary tastes, trends and traditions. Situated on a Great Lake, bordered by the mighty Ohio River and full of farm-rich plains and valleys, the Midwestern state possesses a rich allotment of local flavors. When it comes to distinctive food and beverage products, the Buckeye State just might be the richest terrain in the nation.
Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs
When Michael Symon set about opening a barbecue joint in the heart of downtown Cleveland, he said that he would be introducing diners to his brand of Cleveland-style barbecue. Sure, his slow-smoked beef brisket, pork ribs and pork belly are rooted in places like Texas, Memphis and the Carolinas. But the ingredients and techniques at Mabel’s BBQ have a characteristically Northeast Ohio flavor. Fueling Symon’s beefy smokers is a mix of indigenous fruitwoods like apple and cherry. In a nod to Cleveland’s great Jewish delis, Mabel’s rubs giant beef ribs with a blend of pastrami spices. Locally made kielbasa, from the nearby West Side Market, replaces the traditional Texas-style hot links, and the locally adored Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard makes an appearance in the Carolina-style sauce. Don’t come to Mabel’s and expect cornbread, mac and cheese or braised collards: Here, Eastern European-rooted sides like broccoli salad and spaetzle and cabbage prevail.
The Galley Boy
In Akron (and surrounding communities), the drive-in is alive and well. Fans of Swenson’s know that when they pull into any one of the restaurant’s handful of locations, they’ll be promptly greeted by enthusiastic “curb servers” who sprint between car and café. Flick your lights on for service, order a Galley Boy, onion rings and a creamy chocolate milkshake, and you’ll be rewarded with a classic diner meal dished up on a carhop tray affixed to the car window. Since 1934, drivers and passengers have loaded up on beloved Galley Boys, a sandwich composed of twin diner-style patties, melted cheese and not one, but two special sauces on a soft bun. The bundle is swaddled in a wax-paper pouch and garnished with an olive-topped toothpick.
Jeni's Ice Cream
Like many passionate food entrepreneurs, Jeni Britton Bauer started small — really small. Her handcrafted ice creams were available only at a tiny food stall in the North Market, a popular public market in the heart of Columbus. It took four years before she opened a second, larger Jeni’s shop in another part of town. Now, years, cookbooks and innumerable awards later, Jeni and her ice cream are seemingly everywhere, with shops dispensing those irresistibly delicious cones and cups of Salty Caramel, Brambleberry Crisp and Darkest Chocolate in scoop shops all throughout the country. But Columbus is and always will be home.
Back in the 1940s, barbecue legend Virgil Whitmore concocted the first Polish Boy using ingredients he already had on hand. Back then, smoky Polish-style sausages earned the nickname “Polish boys,” and since this sandwich is built atop such a thing, the name seemed to have been adopted. On top of that flavorful kielbasa is a stack of crispy fries, creamy coleslaw and zesty barbecue sauce, all stowed in a sturdy hot dog bun. The deliciously filling Polish Boy has been a staple of Cleveland barbecue joints for decades, but the sandwich is enjoying a renaissance of late thanks to places like Banter, a sausage and poutine shop on the city’s near west side. Owing to the butcher-crafted kielbasa and pitch-perfect fries, the Polish Boy never tasted so good.
Hungarian Hot Dogs
Though these uniquely flavored hot dogs have been a Toledo staple since Hungarian-American entrepreneur Tony Packo opened his first eponymous spot in 1932, the brand found unexpected notoriety in 1976. That’s when Corporal Max Klinger, played by Toledo native Jamie Farr, sang the praises of the soul-satisfying sausages on a little television show called M*A*S*H. You can guess what happened next. The best way to enjoy Hungarian hot dogs, most agree, is buried in chili, onions and mustard, preferably by the pair or trio. Now available at outposts throughout the region, including one just steps from where Minor League Baseball’s Toledo Mud Hens play, Tony Packo’s has a fix ready nearly anywhere a craving strikes.
Thanks to Skyline Chili, scores of Americans living outside the Queen City have discovered the matchless joys of Cincinnati-style chili, which fans know has little to do with that Texas-reared version. At countless “parlors” throughout the region, chili refers to that thin, mildly spiced meat-based sauce that is ladled over Coney dogs or big platters of spaghetti. Skyline and early rival Gold Star both cast a very wide net throughout the region and beyond, but many locals prefer to get their two-, three-, four- and five-way plates at local legend Camp Washington, honored by the James Beard Foundation as an American Regional Classic. Whether you prefer yours topped simply with finely shredded cheddar cheese or the works — cheese, onions and beans — it’s a comfort classic, best enjoyed with hot sauce and oyster crackers.
At markets and restaurants throughout Cincinnati, shoppers encounter a local staple called goetta, a dish created and made popular by early Germany immigrants. Similar to Pennsylvania’s scrapple, this savory breakfast item melds pork (and beef) parts, oats and spices into a sausage-like log that is typically sliced, browned and paired with eggs and toast. Taste of Belgium chef-owner Jean-Francois Flechet buys his goetta from the venerable Eckerlin Meats at Cinci’s Findlay Market for use in a number of brunch items, but the hash is tough to top. To craft his hash, he sautées goetta to pair with crispy frites, roasted peppers and onions. The hash is gilded with a pair of fried eggs that, when popped, ooze their silken centers all over the spiced sausage.
Paw Paw Wheat Ale
Though it is largely unknown to most Americans, the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the U.S. Miraculously, this tropical fruit tree thrives in the temperate forests of eastern North America, especially in Southeastern Ohio. In fact, for almost 20 years, the Annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival has taken place each autumn near Athens, Ohio, where the mango-like fruit is concocted into smoothies, salsa and ice creams. But one of the best applications, many agree, is for use in beer, specifically Jackie O’s Paw Paw Wheat Ale, which the popular Athens-based brewery has been crafting seasonally since 2003. The wheat ale is fermented with local pawpaw fruit, producing lovely notes of melon and banana.
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Maple Syrup
In early March, the weather conditions in Northeast Ohio are just right for the annual harvesting of maple sap. Thanks to an abundance of sugar maple trees, the region has a deep history of not only tapping trees, collecting sap and boiling it down into maple syrup, but also celebrating the rituals that go along with it. Early spring in Geauga and Ashtabula counties is filled with family-friendly tree-tapping ceremonies, maple sugar festivals and pancake breakfasts that utilize that woodsy-sweet nectar in myriad forms. One, however, manages to stand out. Bissell Maple Farm in Ashtabula County ages their proprietary Ohio maple syrup for months in used bourbon barrels (including some from legendary distiller Old Rip Van Winkle) to craft maple syrup with a smoky complexity that makes everything it touches a new delicacy.
It used to be that every region had its own unique brand of soft drinks, including North Carolina’s refreshing Cheerwine and New England’s bracing Moxie. From 1924 to 1962, Akron had NORKA (Akron spelled backwards), a delicious line of hand-crafted beverages that, like most regional sodas, failed to survive as larger brands improved distribution. Revived a half a century later, the iconic NORKA brand is finding scores of new fans, thanks to flavors like Orange, Cherry-Strawberry, Ginger Ale and Root Beer. In fact, unlike the exclusively local footprint of its precursor, today’s NORKA can be purchased and enjoyed in multiple states and stores.
Ohio ranks sixth in the country in sweet corn production, but anybody who lives here will tell that we are number one when it comes to flavor. Firmly in the Corn Belt, Ohio grows some of the sweetest sweet corn around, which in turn fuels corn-themed festivals filled with shucking and eating contests, befuddling corn mazes and, naturally, the crowning of the current year’s King and Queen Corn. Farm-to-table chefs across the state can’t wait to get their hands on just-picked sweet corn, which rolls in by the bushel from July to October. At Wheat Penny Oven in Dayton, Chef-Owner Elizabeth Wiley incorporates locally grown corn into countless dishes, but the one that diners look forward to most is a pizza called Miss Ohio. In place of tomato sauce, the chef ladles on corn crema, a concentrated corn puree that tastes like 1,000 ears of corn. The summery pie is topped with housemade mozzarella, local cherry tomatoes, roasted corn kernels and fresh-from-the-garden basil.
Fried Lake Perch
More fish are caught each year in Lake Erie than in all of the other Great Lakes combined. The relatively warm waters, especially in the lake’s Western Basin, make for productive catches of smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, yellow perch and the beloved walleye. All along the coast, but especially on the fun-filled islands of South Bass and Kelleys, fresh-caught, fresh-fried lake perch finds its way into sandwiches, wraps, tacos and baskets overflowing with fries and coleslaw. On a prime summer weekend, the Village Pump on Kelleys Island might serve 3,000 hungry visitors, many of whom opt for the mild and sweet fried lake perch dinner baskets.
Baby Swiss Cheese
Nearly half of all Amish families reside in Holmes County, a lush and sweeping countryside in rural Ohio, where horse-drawn buggies are as common a sight as “English” driven automobiles. It was here, in 1947, that Swiss native Alfred Guggisberg set up his eponymous cheese-making operation – right alongside the happy cows that provided him with all the sweet grass-fed milk he needed. Guggisberg’s Baby Swiss, known by its characteristic small holes, was crafted to suit more-timid American tastes. Its irresistibly creamy, nutty and mild-by-comparison flavor is an Amish Country original with very broad appeal. Fans flock to the shop in quaint Millersburg, Ohio, to sample cheeses and take home a wheel or three of this distinctive American product.
Long ago, Barberton, a small city 40 miles outside of Cleveland, declared itself the Chicken Capital of the World thanks to an abundance of fried chicken eateries, where things are done a little differently. Using recipes and techniques imported from Serbia 80 years ago, these chicken houses start with fresh Amish-raised birds, which are lightly salted, dusted in flour, tossed in an egg wash, rolled in bread crumbs and fried in lard to a sunny disposition. In addition to the wings, breasts, thighs and legs, Barberton-style chicken also features breaded and fried backs (called chicken ribs), a holdover from the Depression days. But Barberton chicken is more than just heavenly crisp fried chicken; it’s a tradition that always includes white bread, coleslaw, fries and “hot sauce,” which is actually a stewed tomato and rice dish, with Serbian origins. Try a banner version at Belgrade Gardens.
Parma, Ohio, is a working-class neighborhood of approximately 80,000 residents, nearly half of whom have roots that stretch back to Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — places where the pierogi is king. Most Parma households still possess at least one family member who can fashion a few dozen pierogi in a jiff, but why bother when Perla Pierogies is on the job? The best pierogi, anybody will tell you, sport a gossamer-thin wrapper as opposed to those thick and gummy exteriors. Perla starts with fresh dough that is stretched to its delicate limit before adding a dozen different fillings like potato, potato and sauerkraut, and potato, cheddar and bacon. Each dumpling is pinched and pressed by hand and par-boiled, leaving just a minute in a hot pan (with butter and onions, naturally) at home to crisp them up.