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Classy Trashy: Fast-food classics inspire upscale creations

Mike Thomas

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For better or worse, fast food is something of a Midwestern tradition (and who are we kidding—it’s probably for the worse). While often viewed as a guilty pleasure in today’s increasingly health- and fitness-minded society, fast food chains still dominate much of our landscape—not to mention our diets.

In many households, it’s the simple and easy option for busy working parents. For others, it’s the best you can do for the price. Unpretentious, easily-accessible, ready when you are—fast food remains a familiar touchstone for millions. 

When he opened Service Bar, Chef Avishar Barua wanted to bring that same approachability to the food on his menu. “We were trying to make dishes that I had a lot of experience with, but it’s hard to translate some of that experience into a dining room,” Barua remembers. “I grew up in the Midwest, and I know how hard it is to get my family to eat stuff.” 

This is where tinkering at Taco Bell some years before came in.

“When I found out about the Cheesy Gordita Crunch I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Barua explains. “That’s everything—every contrast you want, every flavor. I thought it would be really cool if you put it in a Doritos Locos shell.”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

The Dorito-infused gordita he conceived of that day became Baura’s go-to order when visiting the ostensibly-Mexican-themed fast-food chain. Later, it served as the inspiration for one of Service Bar’s most iconic menu items—the Cheesy Brisket Crunch.

“At face value, it seems like an upgraded version of the Taco Bell taco,” says Barua of Service Bar’s take on the fast-food standard.

Featuring house-smoked brisket, Barua’s creation mimics its fast-food counterpart with a South American-inspired sauce of serano and nora chiles, smoked cheddar from Middlefield Original Cheese co-op, and shredded iceberg lettuce—all in a hard shell made with Columbus’ own Koki’s Tortillas. To reproduce the Gordita’s signature outer shell, Barua looked to the traditional Bengali frybread of his youth—a staple in his mother’s cooking. 

“We’re trying to recreate that memory of biting into that super-crunchy taco, with all these things encapsulated from all these experiences into one very identifiable dish.”

Barua’s approach to cooking centers on creating points of entry through familiar presentations. In his kitchen, there is no clear distinction between high-end cuisine and lowbrow junk food. There is only good, and not good.

“People will always bring up ‘modern cooking’ or ‘fusion cooking’ —it’s just cooking, man,” says Barua. “You can just say, ‘I think this is food that I’d like to eat, and I want to make it and try to translate it.’ ” 

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This view is shared by A&R Creative Group head chef Tyler Minnis, who incorporates upscale twists on fast-food favorites on the menu at The Market Italian Village.

Chef Minnis has found that fast-food presentations can serve as useful points of access for patrons when it comes to some of the market’s more formidable offerings. 

“I think it’s an easier way to introduce certain ingredients to people that they might not normally be adventurous enough to try,” Minnis explains. “You might see something and say, ‘Oh, I know what that is, and I like it, so why not try the rest of it?’ ”

It was this approach that led to the creation of one of the standout items on the Market’s brunch menu. With a thick-cut slice of mortadella in place of the Canadian bacon and the funky goodness of taleggio replacing the usual slice of processed American, The Market McMuffin improves dramatically on its counterpart from the golden arches. 

In addition to making upscale ingredients accessible to the masses, Chef Minnis finds that fast-food twists help to keep the tone of the menu light. 

“Myself and my staff take this stuff very seriously, but at the same time, we try to have fun with it,” Minnis explains. “If not, there’s not really any reason to be cooking. You might as well do something else.”

For these chefs, dishes such as these constitute more than just a cheeky highbrow take on supposedly lowbrow food options. They are a valuable resource in encouraging diners to test the limits of their palates through forms they are already comfortable with. What’s more, these dishes represent an expression of one of the Midwest’s most authentic food traditions. 

“We were once classified by Anthony Bourdain, R-I-P, as a place that was a bunch of strip malls separated by Applebees,” chef Barua says. “That’s what he said about Columbus, Ohio. And you know what, maybe we are, but it’s cool. We can all identify with things here. We can all have memories, and we’re not pretentious assholes.” 

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Food & Drink

Eat Like a Kid: 6 childhood favorite foods, all grown up

Madi Task

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Sometimes I think back on the food I ate as a kid and wonder how the heck I was able to go back outside and continue playing with surely fewer nutrients than the human body needs to work with. Pop a quick Little Debbie Fudge Round or inhale a bowl of Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese and go. I don’t know how I did it, but I know that today I definitely value food existing as an experience all on its own. With this list, I give you memory-making foods that will either flash you back to a simpler time, or feel like a true upgrade from the fast-meal nature you used to adore but sadly outgrew. Stay gold!

Boozy Milkshakes| HADLEY’S BAR + KITCHEN | 260 S FOURTH ST.

The shortcut to turning any kid treat into an adult favorite is simple: add booze. And at Hadley’s, they are all too familiar with this formula. The menu here features sophisticated flavors like Oreo Bonanza with Smirno Vanilla, Key Lime Pie with Absolut Lime, and a Bacon Bourbon Maple with Bulleit Bourbon. Of course, we all have a vegan friend who avoids dairy, and Hadley’s made sure they were covered with a vegan Coco Coffee Shake with Watershed Vodka. Usually, I’d say grab a few straws and share with your friends, but these are best enjoyed separately.

The Octodog | DIRTY FRANK’S | 248 S FOURTH ST.

Some of those disgusting combinations you crafted as a child have potential in the eyes of the chefs over at Dirty Frank’s. Forget cut-up hot dogs mixed into mac ‘n’ cheese, you completely neglected to consider the presentation of the dish. (Classic kid move.) Order The Octodog, an octopus-shaped hot dog sitting happily on top of a pile of mac ‘n’ cheese from Dirty Frank’s. This could also be seen as the adult-equivalent to dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Since when was the last time you ate something shaped like an animal? Probably before junior high. Feel young again by stuffing your face with creamy mac ‘n’ cheese and an octopus hot dog cooked to adult standards, but visually appealing to the five-year-old at heart.

Ramen Noodles | FUKURYU | 1600 W LANE AVE.

Photo: Kyle Tracey

Here we transition into adulthood and arguably the first meal you ever learned how to cook: ramen noodles. Your standards have surely upgraded since the last time you made a $0.98 meal from home, so prove it at Fukuryu, where you can eat actual, authentic Japanese ramen. This quick-and-easy, Costco-style dinner has been given a bad rep for far too long, because one trip to Fukuryu will show you how ramen is supposed to taste. Piled with chicken, pork belly, soft shell crab, or tofu, and a mountain of toppings you pick like sweet corn, chili pork, naruto, leeks, chili oil, toasted garlic oil, and more, their flavors are more expansive than your under-developed child taste buds could probably take. Now, they’re right up your alley. Get slurpin’.

Edible Cookie Dough | COOKIE DOUGH CREAMERY | 7227 N HIGH ST.

Butter, flour, sugar, and a secret ingredient...don’t worry, it’s not eggs. No one’s getting hit with a spoon for eating raw cookie dough around here, they’re just getting tips at Cookie Dough Creamery. Fill a cup with one of six cookie dough flavors and pile it high with ice cream and toppings the way you always over-did as a kid. They have five main flavors of cookie dough: chocolate chip, sugar cookie, Oreo, peanut butter, and brownie batter. Plus, every few months they offer one to three seasonal flavors to try. (This summer it’s lemon!) As far as making your own cookie dough at home goes, quit the risk and trust whisk at Cookie Dough Creamery. I can tell you from experience it’s just like Mom’s, minus the lecture for eating it.

Gourmet Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwiches | KREMA NUT COMPANY | 1000 GOODALE BLVD.

Photo: Julian Foglietti

The picky eater in all of us died at age 12 when we quickly became aware of how good food combinations foreign to us actually taste. In other words, we aren’t as stuck to only strawberry or grape jelly as we used to be. We’re not as hard on our friends who were scared to try peanut butter and fluff as a kid. Today, we go gourmet. Krema’s has a wide variety of PB&Js, all with an unconventional twist. Strawberry preserves are used instead of strawberry jelly, and fresh slices of strawberries sit in the sandwich with it. Other combos include The Kicker, or peanut butter and spicy raspberry preserves for the kid who made sure everyone knew it was his rock, not the neighborhood rock. Plus other game-changers like PB Apple Cheesecake, and almond or cashew butter instead of peanut butter are up for grabs at this one-of-a-kind nut company serving classic American favorites with a twist.

Cotton Candy Cocktail | FORNO | 721 N HIGH ST.

The days of begging your parents for overpriced u at baseball games are over, but the days of making our everyday cocktails more Instagrammable are coming quickly. As a result, Forno is now serving a new cotton candy cocktail served in two glasses: one for the drink, and the other to hold a cloud of pink cotton candy, set aside for you to dissolve when your iPhone ash is ready. Sip one and you’ll start acting like those sugar-high cartoon characters who were actually acting drunk to get a laugh from the parent viewers helicoptering over their kid’s TV shows. Grow up and spike your cotton candy this summer!

Cover photo by Brian Kaiser.

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Survival Guide: Columbus Summer Beerfest

614now

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Every year, beer enthusiasts flock to Express LIVE! to sip, sample, and savor brews from 90+ of the best breweries this country has to offer. That's right, lushes, Columbus Summer Beerfest is back this weekend with food, entertainment, and, of course, lots of great craft beer.

Some of you may be first-timers, others have had their pretzel + string cheese + beef jerky necklaces on lock for years. No matter, there are always ways to improve the way you experience this celebration of beer.

Welcome to the 614NOW Summer Beerfest Surivival Guide. As always, drink responsibly.

It is not a race, seriously

Sometimes, kegs do kick, but it's not going to happen within the first hour of doors opening. Relax, there is more than enough beer to go around. I'm talking to you, Kevin, who feels the need to elbow throw the queue and sprint inside the venue every year.

There's truly no need to pregame

The Beerfest-issued plastic mugs may be small, but those samples add up fast. You're gonna wish you hadn't shotgunned that mango White Claw before you left your apartment, we promise.

Hydrate

You're not going to miss anything if you take a five minute hydration hiatus. It'll most likely be hot and the only thing that will quench your thirst from all those salty pretzels is a cup of cold agua. Do yourself a favorite and spend some time near the water stations throughout the night.

Don't wait to use the restroom

The lines are going to be long—real long—all night long. Rather than waiting until the absolute last minute to visit the restroom, grab a sample and head that way before your bladder deems necessary. That way, when the agony sets in, you'll already be next up for a stall.

No really, it's not a race

Slow. Down. This is your chance to try tons of new exciting brews and decide which ones you'd like to add to your normal drinking roster. Brewers from all over the U.S. worked tirelessly to perfect their beers—don't disrespect them by chugging.

Feed your face

Don't let the excitement of the festival distract you from your growling stomach. There will be plenty of food trucks present to tide over even the most specific craving, though everyone knows the best options are always deep friend and covered in cheese.

Walk, bike, rideshare

Most people exiting the Express LIVE! gate at the end of the night are in no shape to drive and neither should you. Not only would you have to deal with parking if you drove yourself, but walking, biking, or ridesharing to and from the festival is the only way to ensure safety.

Tickets to the Columbus Summer Beerfest are still available. Visit columbusbeerfest.com for more information.

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Olde Towne East’s first brewery is now open

614now

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Late is always better than never, especially in the case of a new local brewery. After setbacks, Gemut Biergarten is officially open at 734 Oak St. Prost!

The brewery was supposed to open to the public on August 16, but ran into a "little bump with the state."

Guests can expect European and German-style lagers and pilsners brewed by former Four String Brewing Co. employees Kyle Hofmeister, Rob Camstra, and Nick Guyton. Gemut Biergarten is owned by Camstra, Guyton, Hofmeister, and his wife Chelsea Rennie.

In addition to brews, the venture will serve wine, cocktails, and traditional German and European fare.

Click here for the food and beer menus.

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