Fair-minded: These local joints combine food with fun

We missed out on festival treats in 2020, so we found them at local eateries


Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, most Ohioans missed out on the smells and sights of summer and fall carnivals.

Whether it was the cancellation of the Ohio State Fair during the heat of the summer, or the absence of local gatherings in the crisp fall air, our family found we missed being around other people, and we truly missed festival food.

So we did the next best thing: We sought out places that offer fair food year around in central Ohio, hoping these sweet comfort foods could help get us through a rough-and-tumble year. Here’s what we found:

Libby Lou’s Fun Factory: Cotton candy

Fair-minded: These local joints combine food with fun

Our 11-year-old, Max, was elated to learn a new candy store opened this year within walking distance of our Clintonville home. But it took the cake when he learned that Libby Lou’s also offered fresh-spun cotton candy every day. No longer would he have to wait until fair season to eat warm, fluffy clouds of sugar.

Kilwins: Carmel apples

Fair-minded: These local joints combine food with fun

Sure, you’ll find delicious ice cream and handmade chocolates at this sweet shop chain located in Dublin’s new Bridge Park development. But take it from us: Go for the caramel apples. You’ll find a tempting selection of the sticky, juicy treats displayed with pride in a showcase on the counter. For a limited time, you’ll find them decked out for the holidays.

Al’s Delicious Popcorn: Sweet and savory popcorn

Al Voelkel founded this Columbus hidden gem in 1985, tucked away in the Bethel Center strip mall on Bethel Road. Jan and Scott Baird own it now, and they make – from scratch – more than 80 flavors of crunchy popcorn in a variety of colors. The most-popular flavor, Jan tells us, is Vanilla Butternut. You also can find flavors ranging from Banana to Dill Pickle to Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup. Try the Columbus Mix, a combination of Vanilla Butternut and White Cheddar. They ship everywhere, and they’ve opened a second retail location in Hilliard.

Spicy Cup Bakery: Churros

Fair-minded: These local joints combine food with fun

If you’ve never bit into a properly made churro, crunchy yet soft, tasty cinnamon sprinkled on the outside, then head to Spicy Cup Café & Bakery in Columbus. This authentic Mexican bakery in the Beechcroft Centre, along Rt. 161, does it right. They also prepare other pastries and breads, including conchas and bolillos, freshly each day.

OH Pizza & Wings: Deep-fried Oreos

Fair-minded: These local joints combine food with fun

We admit the curiosity got the better of us when we saw an ad for deep-fried Oreos from a local pizza joint. So we visited OH Pizza & Wings in Worthington, and discovered more fun food. In addition to the Oreo (which was really good, by the way), OH offers funnel cakes, cinnamon-sugar pretzels, deep-fried brownie bites and deep-fried Reese’s Cups. Oh, and the pizza was good, too.

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Learn what’s brewing in central Ohio, earn cool T-shirt


The Columbus Coffee Experience lets you sample the quality of superior roasted coffee in Ohio’s capital city. On the self-guided tour from Experience Columbus, you get a passport at one of the 17 participating coffee shops. After getting four stamps, you earn a trail T-shirt, and if you fill ‘er up, you can redeem the passport for a travel mug. Read more in our guest blog, “Check out what’s percolating in Columbus,” for Ohio.org.
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The enthusiasm over authentic ethnic food in Ohio’s capital is spreading rapidly, and the growing interest is well-founded. Wendy Pramik

Tour central Ohio’s ethnic food scene


Ohio’s capital city boasts an enviable variety of ethnic eateries, from Salvadoran to Somali, Indian to Ethiopian. Read more in our story for USA Today.

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Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

If we’ve learned anything during a decade of travel writing, it’s that nothing sells like a trail.

We’ve covered coffee trails, doughnut trails, bourbon trails, beer trails, bicycle-and-beer trails, you name it. One that we’ve recently experienced and can really sink our teeth into is the Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail.

Sponsored primarily by the Miami County Visitors and Convention Bureau, this sacchariferous safari includes 31 stops in Ohio where the tempting combination of peanut butter and chocolate is concocted.

Check out the trail map at the Miami County VCB. Meanwhile, here are four stops along the route that we recently experienced in central Ohio:

Original Goodie Shop
2116 Tremont Center
Upper Arlington
Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Debbie Smith rolls peanut butter batter into logs while making handmade Buckeye candies at the Original Goodie Shop in Upper Arlington. She then cuts out 3-ounce pieces with a dough scraper, the same one her father, James Krenek, used when he opened the bakery in 1967. Debbie now owns the shop with her daughters, Emilie and Miranda, and sells cookies, cakes, breads, potpies and Buckeyes.

Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Debbie shapes the batter into balls and then comes the magic. If you’ve ever made Buckeyes, you might have pierced them with toothpicks to dunk them into melted chocolate. That’s how we did it at home, and they always came out with a visible hole where the toothpick entered the nutty ball of goop.

Not Debbie. She lifts each one with what looks like a bent fork with two prongs and dips each into melted chocolate that’s not spoilt with paraffin wax.

“This is my special tool that doesn’t leave toothpick mark,” she says. We can attest that her candies, dunked in high-quality dark chocolate, are delicious – and lovely to gaze upon. Seasonal designs include Santas and bucked-tooth Easter bunnies.

Sweet Tooth Cottage
10221 Sawmill Pkwy.
Powell
Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

The sweet truth about Sweet Tooth Cottage in Powell is that it’s owned by Sue Bissonnette, a dental hygienist who’s passionate about homemade baked goods that make you smile.

Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Sue ran her shop out of her home in Powell before moving into a retail shop on Sawmill Parkway six years ago. Inside you’ll find all sorts of neatly decorated butter cookie cutouts, her signature item. She also sells cakes, cupcakes, brownies and Buckeyes, made with melted semi-sweet chocolate and no wax.

“It’s the best chocolate I’ve ever had,” says Nicole Forsythe, manager at Sweet Tooth.

They make the Buckeyes in small batches with fresh ingredients, hand rolling and hand dipping. “We take pride in making them look nice,” Nicole says.

We liked that the chocolate shell had a nice crunch when you bit into the candy, making it extra scrumptious.

Anthony-Thomas Candy Co.
1777 Arlingate Lane
Columbus
Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Bang. Hiss. Bang. Hiss.

Noisemaking doesn’t conjure images of creamy peanut butter-and-chocolate Buckeye candies. But those sounds resonate at the Anthony-Thomas Candy Co. factory on the west side of Columbus, where the 67-year-old company makes batches of 160,000 of the delectable treats at a time.

Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Gloved workers at the end of an assembly line release the shiny, chocolate gems from plastic molds with a bang on the countertop, creating a beat that interplays with a hiss of air from a compressor amid the machinery. The smell of warm chocolate wafts through the building.

Smell for yourself at an Anthony-Thomas factory tour, held every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (Wednesday tours also are available from June through August.) Admission, which can be used toward a candy purchase, is $2 for adults, and $1 for children.

Chocolate Cafe
1855 Northwest Blvd.
Columbus
Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

Confession: We visited the Chocolate Cafe before the existence of the Buckeye Candy Trail, which was created in 2018. We now know that the Grandview eatery offers Buckeye candies, but at the time of our visit, were swooned by the chocolate fondue.

Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops

We skewered strawberries, marshmallows, graham crackers, pound cake and Rice Krispies treats before drowning them in warm, fudgy chocolate. Playing with food never felt so fun or tasted so good.

What’s crazy is that you can eat all the fondue you want for $8.99 on Fridays, beginning at 5 p.m., until nothing is left. The cafe also offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, and do-it-yourself S’mores. Kids eat for $1.99 on Monday.

Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail: Indulge in peanut butter and chocolate at central Ohio stops
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Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern: Mike continues quest for tasty pork tenderloins in Midwest

Mike continues quest for tasty pork tenderloins in Midwest

Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern: Mike continues quest for tasty pork tenderloins in Midwest
Rusty Bucket has nine central Ohio locations, including our favorite in Clintonville.

Having spent significant time in Indiana last year researching a story on the Tenderloin Lovers Trail for USA Today, I was encouraged to see a well-known restaurant in Columbus offering a similar sandwich.

So our family paid a visit last week to the Rusty Bucket in Clintonville to see how the tenderloin stacked up. Rusty Bucket’s nine central Ohio locations feature the tenderloin sandwich as the blue plate special on Tuesdays, and we were delighted to see a lot of other specials on the menu.

If you’re not familiar with the pork tenderloin sandwich, it’s a well-bred institution in Midwestern states such as Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, where pork production is high. It seems that every restaurant and bar in the Hoosier State offers some sort of tenderloin sandwich. They say it began at Nick’s near Fort Wayne, but now they’re seemingly everywhere.

But in Columbus? Not so much.

Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern: Mike continues quest for tasty pork tenderloins in Midwest
Yellow mustard is a must condiment on a pork tenderloin sandwich.

It sounds obvious, but a proper pork tenderloin sandwich should be from the tenderloin, not the pork loin. It should have a crisp bite and be seasoned, but still retain the full pork flavor. It’s typically served with lettuce tomato, pickles and mayo. For some reason people in Indiana also like to plaster them with yellow mustard. So that’s the way I topped mine.

The Rusty Bucket special includes a 5-ounce tenderloin, which is tenderized and pounded flat, breaded and fried, served with fries. It was moist and tasty, and I would say stacks up well flavor-wise to what I experienced in Indiana. It wasn’t nearly as large as some of the sandwiches I found there, however, which sometimes expand beyond the dinner platter only to be barely covered by a ridiculously small bun.

Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern: Mike continues quest for tasty pork tenderloins in Midwest
The pork tenderloin sandwich is Rusty Bucket’s Tuesday’s “Blue Plate Special.”

We found good deals all over the menu. Rusty Bucket sells appetizers and pizzas at half price from 3-6 p.m. on weekdays, when the “Juicy Lucy” burger is offered at $5. There’s a drink special every day, including half-priced bottles of wine on Tuesdays.

The variety is good, since Wendy is a vegetarian. She tore into a harvest salad, while Rosie munched on half-priced potstickers and Max went with tried-and-true chicken fingers. But anytime I want to pretend I’m a Hoosier, I know where to go for the breaded pork sandwich experience.

Learn more about Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern.


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Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster


Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in LancasterIf you’re like us, date nights are few and far between. But a lack of short-order sitters and poor planning on our part doesn’t stop us from getting out once in a while for some quality adult time with our kids in tow.

One surprising place to do just that, we recently discovered, is the Rockmill Brewery in Lancaster, 30 minutes from downtown Columbus.

The small-production brewery is located on a former horse farm, and the rural landscape is both romantic and adventuresome. There’s plenty of room to roam, including a fishing pond that reflects the trees around it. The Hocking River flows near part of the property, resembling a painting, meandering off into the wooded horizon. And, even more surprising, there are explorable recess caves.

We paid a visit on Father’s Day, and it sorta felt like we were crashing a private party. Folks were nicely dressed, sipping beers on a hillside, as their children played alongside stretched-out blankets. Other guests threw Frisbees and played corn hole, awaiting a band that was scheduled to play in the evening by a small building that resembled a church.

But this, we learned, is how you behave at Rockmill. It’s a family affair, and bonding is encouraged.

Rockmill opened in 2010, and it’s gotten a solid reputation among craft brewers in central Ohio. The company also operates Rockmill Tavern in Columbus’ Brewery District.

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in LancasterOwner Matt Barbee describes Rockmill as a “Belgian-style brewery,” with added sugars that provide distinct flavor profiles, such as fruit, spice or herbs, in addition to the traditional beer notes that come from grain and hops. The results are big, complex flavors that go far beyond the common lager. Rockmill’s standard beers are named simply after their style: witbier, saison, dubbel and tripel.

The quaint tasting room was once a horse stable, and there are several nooks and crannies where you can get lost while you indulge in a brew. Or, take it outside on the spacious grounds. You can bring your own food, or opt for the tasty selections from a food truck outside — Backcountry Barbecue offers standard BBQ fare. Check its website for dates and times of operation.

Rockmill Brewery is located at 5705 Lithopolis Rd. NW, Lancaster. Learn more at www.rockmillbrewery.com.


Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

Rockmill Brewery: Plan date with kids at picturesque beer haven in Lancaster

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Search for pixie portals while discovering downtown Dublin’s quaint shops


Be it beer, wine, doughnuts or chocolate, we’re suckers for organized trails. So when I recently learned of a fairy trail in downtown Dublin, my daughter, Rosie, and I made plans to check it out.

The Irish Fairy Door Trail was created in 2016 by the Dublin Convention & Visitors Bureau as a fun way to highlight the independent businesses in downtown Dublin. Trail guides are available online or can be picked up in person at the Dublin Visitor & Information Center at 9 S. High St. The center is open daily from 8 a.m.-9 p.m.

Eight small, glitter-encrusted doors have been hidden inside an equal number of businesses in the historic downtown area. It’s up to participants to find them and take note of the fairy’s name that’s been attached to each. Jot down the names of the fairies found at six of the eight participating stores on your passport to earn an Irish Fairy Door Trail T-shirt. Completed passports can be slipped into a box inside the visitor’s center.

The real prize, Rosie and I discovered, was spending time together exploring the unique stores. I drank coconut-flavored coffee and devoured sea-salt caramels at Winans of Dublin. Rosie found a shamrock-spotted rubber duck at Ha’Penny Bridge Imports of Ireland and a comfortable seat in a giant Teddy bear at the Dublin Toy Emporium.

Here is the full list of participating stores at the time of our adventure:

Learn more about Dublin’s Irish Fairy Door Trail.

Also check out Dublin’s new Celtic Cocktail Trail, and Dublin’s Art in Public Places Tour.



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Saraga International Grocery: Columbus' growing diversity reflected in store's colorful offerings

Columbus’ growing diversity reflected in store’s colorful offerings


Saraga International Grocery: Columbus' growing diversity reflected in store's colorful offeringsA grocery store doesn’t typically come to mind when thinking of adventuresome destinations for families in Columbus. But Saraga International Grocery in a former Toys “R” Us along Morse Road isn’t your typical grocery store.

Stepping into the 40,000 square-foot store feels like entering another country. The aisles are lined with fascinating foods and produce from all over the world, especially Asia. Shoppers are just as diverse, speaking multiple languages as they fill their carts and order fresh fish from the pungent seafood counter.

The Saraga chain, with three stores in Indiana and Ohio, was founded by Korean brothers, Jong Sung and Bong Sung, in Bloomington, Ind., in 1994. The Columbus location opened in 2013, meeting Columbus’ growing diverse population.

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“We recognized that America was becoming a multicultural and multiracial community where diverse people from Asia, Europe, South America and Africa lived together,” say the Sung brothers on their website, saragafood.com. “So, we decided to establish an international grocery store to accommodate the lives of these people.”

Saraga International Grocery: Columbus' growing diversity reflected in store's colorful offeringsThe fast rising star of Saraga is Momo Ghar, a tiny Nepali and Tibetan restaurant located inside the grocery store that specializes in dumplings called momos. International accolades include being named one of Yelp’s top 100 places to eat in the United States and being featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with host and Columbus native, Guy Fieri.

Saraga International Grocery is located at 1265 Morse Rd. Learn more at saragafood.com.

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