Tela Bar + Kitchen

Tela Bar + Kitchen in CincinnatiTela Bar + Kitchen is a trendy little spot in Wyoming that has the feel of a local neighborhood pub. The atmosphere is as warm as the décor whether you’re sitting at the bar or in the dining area. Perhaps my favorite spot in the restaurant is the short bar tucked away next to the open kitchen area. If you’re lucky enough to get seated there, you can see all the dishes as they come up which gives you a better idea about what you might want to order. Of course, for me, it only makes things more difficult because I want to order one of everything I see go by.

Below I detail items I’ve tried, but here are a few dishes that other patrons have raved about: Pretzel Nugs served with beer mustard and roasted garlic caramel, Duck ‘Au Vin’, Tomahawk Pork Chop, and Crisp Chicken Wings which come in a variety of unique sauces.

The Food

Tela Bar + Kitchen poutine
Pendery’s Poutine
Tela Bar + Kitchen poutine
Shrimp + Grits

Tela Bar + Kitchen Royale with Cheese
Royale w/ Cheese

Tela Bar + Kitchen Royale with Cheese plus Beer
Royale w/ Cheese + Little Kings

Generally speaking, Tela is all about the zing and zest – many of their dishes will make you sweat or open up your sinuses at the very least – and based on the dishes I tried, unique and distinguished flavor combinations.

The poutine features a heaping pile of thin, seasoned fries (perhaps my favorite fries in all of Cincinnati), cheddar cheese curds and pork belly lardon coated with house gravy and beer mustard and topped off with a fried egg. The smoky crunch of the pork belly lardon really elevates this poutine, but a little more added to the mix would send it sky high.

The Multibeast is a sandwich comprised of two patties, one angus reserve beef patty and one very tasty chorizo patty. Add in the bacon jam and whipped herbed goat cheese, and this beast is truly multi-talented in that its size and flavor will rock your taste buds. At $15, this burger holds its own against any other gourmet burger that can be found in Cincinnati. The Royale w/ Cheese is also a very good burger, but at $13, might be priced a bit high. Just spend the extra $2 and get the Multibeast.

The Shrimp + Grits feature what might be the best grits I’ve ever tasted (hey, Cincinnati is sometimes considered the South). They simply melt in your mouth. Besides the grits and jumbo shrimp, the dish also features chorizo and pork belly lardon in a savory beer sauce, giving it a rich, smoky flavor that leaves you wanting just a little bit more.

The Drink

As a bourbon fan, naturally two of Tela’s handcrafted cocktails caught my attention. First, I tried the Ruby Claire, a breezy, slightly spicy concoction perfect for spring and/or summer. Next I tried the C Brown, made with apple cider, maple syrup and cinnamon. It might just be the quintessential fall cocktail. But the best thing about both of these cocktails is that you don’t have to be a bourbon lover to enjoy the unique flavors – the bourbon really just adds another subtle layer of flavor without dominating the overall taste.

Tela also offers an eclectic selection of craft beers, including several from popular Cincinnati brewery Rhinegeist. But they don’t just cater to the hipster, craft brew crowd. You can also get Yuengling and Hudy Delight in a can or, better yet, Little Kings in a 7 oz. bottle.

The Upshot

With its unique and original flavors paired with tasty cocktails and a wide range of beers, I would make Tela my neighborhood bar if I lived in or near Wyoming. But even though I’m not in the neighborhood, there’s a good chance I’ll make myself a regular anyway.

—Ryan Varney

More Than Just Another Patriots Recap

Patriots destroy Colts
Smug Bill wonders ‘Is it still smug if it’s true?’

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve recapped the Patriots. There is good reason. Last week was a bye so there was nothing to recap. Two weeks ago the Pats broke the bucking Broncos and there was plenty to recap. However, being the superstitious nut that I am, I didn’t want to jinx the Indianapolis matchup by gushing like a tween girl at a Miley Cyrus concert about how great the Pats were in that game. Besides, I was already attending the Colts game in person, which is jinx enough for Brady and the boys.

If you’re only reading this for my thoughts on Indianapolis, food and culture please skip ahead.

Quick Thought on Denver

I will say this about the Denver game: I was shocked, not only with the victory, but also by the absolute smack down that it was.

Remember, Manning still had Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders back then (unlike for the entirety of the Rams game) so it was still a very multi-dimensional offense in the passing game. Yes, Manning threw for 400+ yards, but only two touchdowns. Guess I’d rather have Brady’s four TDs on a scant 333 yards. Even though the game is always billed as the Brady-Manning bowl, for me it’s still the Belichick-Manning bowl and Belichick proved he can still get the best of the Papa John’s pitchman.

So, now, with Denver losing again, the importance of winning that game cannot be understated in the race for the AFC’s top seed.

And like Belichick was two weeks ago, we’re onto the Colts.

Christmas Comes Early in Indy

Despite the fact that I got tickets for the Pats-Colts game for my birthday (in July), it felt more like Christmas came early for me. With the first real snowfall of the winter, plunging temps and holiday decorations popping up throughout downtown Indianapolis, I was as gleeful as Jonas Gray blasting through a hole for a touchdown. And then the Pats went out and destroyed the Colts with another 40+ point performance.

Not only did my personal attendance not jinx the Pats, I may have seen my “Curse of the Jersey” lifted.

A little backstory: I have a #54 Tedy Bruschi jersey that I used to wear for big games (Superbowls, playoff games and key regular season matchups). I started noticing that every time I wore it, the Pats lost. I hosted a Superbowl party for Pats-Giants II and decided not to wear it. This of course hurt my wife’s feelings since she bought it for me. Trading a future fight for temporary peace, I succumbed and wore the Cursed Jersey. Needless to say, the Pats lost, I ripped off the jersey (in front of stunned guests), threw it across the room and blamed my wife for the loss. RGIII would be proud of my maturity.

Anyway, the jersey made an appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium this past Sunday, and the Patriots won. I still considerate it a tentative victory as it was my wife wearing it and not me.

The Game Itself

Lucas Oil Stadium for Patriots versus Colts
Just before the start of the Patriots vs. Colts on Sunday Night Football

This game was a beat down of epic proportions. From the Pats O line steamrolling the Colts D line allowing former Notre Dame running back Jonas Gray 201 rushing yards to Rob Gronkowski tossing aside DB Sergio Brown like a rag doll, the Patriots physically imposed their will on the Colts.

On the defensive side of the ball, Ahmad Bradshaw (who has been running in Junior Beast Mode all year) was held to four whole yards. With 15 yards, Andrew Luck was the Colts leading rusher. Ouch. And while the Patriots let Luck throw for 300 yards, they were 300 very meaningless yards unless you play fantasy football. The only thing the Patriots gave the Colts was Coby Fleener who did end up with 144 yards but no touchdowns.

Heading into halftime, the game looked like it could turn into a nail biter with TB12 tossing a no-look pick right before half allowing the Colts an easy score. But the Colts just never could get any real momentum and Jonas Gray put the game away.

Personal Takeaways

Last week, ESPN Boston columnist Mike Reiss mentioned Shapiro’s Deli in one of his pieces, going so far as to guarantee the best corned beef sandwich in Indianapolis. As a Reuben aficionado, I had to make up my own mind. Reiss was holding court with some very inquisitive Pats fans, so my wife and I took a table on the outskirts and listened in while we enjoyed our delicious stacked sandwiches. We chatted briefly with Reiss outside as we were all leaving and looking back, I’m worried I didn’t say enough positive things about Shapiro’s Reuben. (If you happen to read this Mike, I really did enjoy my sandwich and my experience at Shapiro’s. If I lived in Indy, I’d be there at least twice a month.)

Twitter screenshot of conversation with Mike Reiss
Excerpt of Twitterings between Mike Reiss and me.

As you can see from above, later I saw his corned beef and raised him a heaping plate of chicken and waffles from Maxine’s Chicken & Waffles. Highly recommend Maxine’s – try the homemade peach butter.

BTW – I was very impressed with Reiss’s graciousness and patience in answering so many questions. The media needs more guys like him. If you get a chance, read his stuff for ESPN Boston.

Kaden's first game
Me (L) with Craig (C) and Kaden (R)

Our seats were up in the nosebleeds (still a great view) in the corner of an end zone. We were surrounded by Patriot diehards, but the best part about sitting up there was getting to be a part of a boy’s first Patriots game. Craig H. from Columbus, OH brought his son Kaden to his first ever game. It was a great father and son moment and I’m so glad to have met them and share the experience with them. What a polite (and obviously smart) young fella Kaden is. Kudos to Craig as well for leaving Lucas Oil Stadium in better shape than he found it. Good deeds do get noticed. Maybe I can get them down here to the ‘Nati if/when the Pats and Bengals square off again – Lord knows Paul Brown Stadium could stand to be a little cleaner!

I’ll close with a bit of humor. I watched the early games on Sunday at Kilroy’s (a place that would make my top five of places to watch football if it was in Cincinnati). As the games wore on, a pack of Pats fans crammed in near the bar. We’re talking at least 50 lil’ Gronks. Suddenly, I don’t think we were in Colts Country any more…

Pats fans take over Colts Country
Pats fans take over Colts Country.

—Ryan Varney

Where to Watch Football in Cincinnati

UPDATE: The 2014-15 NFL season is about to kickoff. Hopefully your team pulled through the pre-season with no devastating injuries and it’s time to enjoy some actual real football. The only problem now is figuring out where to watch, especially if your team isn’t local. With that in mind, it’s time to revisit this blog post from last year. It’s still 100% relevant, meaning nobody went out of business and no other sports bars made the leap into my top five.

Where to watch football in Cincinnati
Watching football at Buffalo Wild Wings in Rookwood

One of the first things I asked about when I moved here was where to watch football in Cincinnati. I can’t believe that was four years ago. Even more troubling is that I’ve never written about my findings (and this is some serious research, mind you).

If you’re already thinking blah blah blah…just tell me where to go., then feel free to skip ahead to find the best place to watch football in Cincinnati.

First, I’d like to encourage you not to get fooled by this compilation from Metromix – like I did when I moved here. It’s fine if you’re only interested in watching one or two games, with the Bengals game being both of them. These are mostly fine establishments, but they DO NOT cater to the fan that wants to watch EVERY NFL game.

Second, if you’re wondering why you should listen to me, let me present some credentials. I moved from Chicago, my home for a decade and a somewhat transient city, that hosts a wide spectrum of NFL team fans besides da Bears. They know how to do a football Sunday Funday. I also go out just about every Sunday with my wife. She will validate any of these assessments. We root for different teams, neither local, so it’s important for us to see all the games. Plus she actually runs a money fantasy football league, so she’s double-y invested. Yeah, we’re serious about the NFL.

So what makes a great place to watch every NFL game?

Three things: TVs, TVs, TVs.

Actually, there’s more to it than just TVs. Food and atmosphere help round out the contributing factors. But the TV setup is clearly the most important thing here. So here are my picks for the places doing it right.

Top 5 Places to Watch NFL Football in Cincinnati

These are not listed in any particular order. The viewer’s proximity to the location plays a big role in determining where to go. Just know that all provide a great football-watching experience.

Buffalo Wild Wings (Rookwood/Hyde Park/Norwood)
http://www.buffalowildwings.com/

Buffalo Wild Wings Norwood - where to watch football in Cincinnati
2692 Madison Road
Cincinnati, OH 45208

If you can get a seat in the bar area, you’re pretty much set up for every game. They have four large TVs (two side by side above the bar) and five smaller TVs in a line. Plus you have good sight lines to catch some of the bigger TV displays in the dining area. They work with you to make sure you can see the games you’re interested in, but it is first come first serve. So get there early.

The atmosphere is pretty festive, especially when the Bengals are on. If you go semi-often, you’ll definitely be able to turn strangers into friends as there is a regular crowd.

Drink specials generally include 23 oz drafts of either Miller Lite, Bud Light or Coors Light for $3. And while they’re working on expanding the menu, it’s still your typical bar fare. Just get the wings.

Putter’s (Liberty Township)
http://putterstavern.com/

Putter's in West Chester - where to watch football in Cincinnati
6575 Cincinnati Dayton Rd
Liberty Twp, OH 45044

Putter’s has a more limited setup, but the south bar has a nice wall of TVs (two large screens surrounded by several smaller ones). There are also many TVs scattered across the entire restaurant, but depending on where you can get a seat, they may not be viewable.

The atmosphere is usually pretty noisy and you may find yourself involved in some trash talk, so be prepared.

During the early games, they have a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar that is excellent. Choose from a variety of mixes and garnish with several cheese choices, olives, pickles, celery, salami, hot peppers and so much more. If that’s not meal enough, enjoy a gameday steak hoagie and fries for five bucks – your choice of mushroom or Italian and mozzarella.

Holy Grail (The Banks/Downtown)
http://www.holygrailcincy.com/html/banks/banks.php

Holy Grail at the Banks - where to watch football in Cincinnati
161 Joe Nuxhall Way
Cincinnati, OH 45202

The Holy Grail has really expanded its TV setup. All screens are large and crystal clear. There’s really not a bad seat in the house and they do a good job of labeling each TV so you know what game will be where.

It’s always loud and rowdy and quite often you can find ESPN radio personality Mo Egger there watching the games. Y’know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

They have your typical bar food fare and they do a good job with it. I don’t think they have any gameday deals that will really draw you in.

Buffalo Wild Wings (Newport/Ft. Thomas)
http://www.buffalowildwings.com/

Buffalo Wild Wings in Newport, KY - where to watch football in Cincinnati
83 Carothers Road
Newport, KY 41071

Best TV setup in Cincinnati. While the whole place is relatively small, they somehow packed in over 45 TVs, all 48” screens or larger and all crystal clear HDTV displays. Plus they have home theater-sized screens above the bar on both sides. The bar is in the middle (so it’s oval) and there are four sections surrounding the bar. Each section has at least eight TVs – needless to say, you can find all the games here. They’ll also work with you to get any game you want on any TV you want. This is where you will find me most Sundays.

The atmosphere isn’t as good as the Rookwood location (above), but it’s new and needs time to develop. It’ll come around, especially when people realize just how AWESOME the TV setup is.

I’ve already commented on the food. It’s the same here as Rookwood.

Willie’s (Covington)
http://www.williescovington.com/

Willie's - where to watch football in Cincinnati
401 Crescent Ave
Covington, Kentucky 41011

Willie’s has the Great Wall of Television. If you can get a seat in the bar, you can sit and stare at four huge screens surrounded by several smaller ones. If you sit in the dining area, the view’s not so good.

Willie’s is a fun place and the food is very good for bar fare – and pretty reasonably priced. The only thing that keeps me from going back more often is the smoke. One of these days NKY will get with the program and ban smoking.

Honorable Mention:

Thirsty’s Oasis (Mason)
http://www.thirstysoasis.com/ordereze/default.aspx

Willie's - where to watch football in Cincinnati
5579 A Ohio 741
Mason, OH 45040

Thirsty’s has a boatload of TVs, well-positioned throughout the bar and you can see all the games from just about wherever you sit. They even have an outdoor patio/bar with enough TVs to show all the games. However, they’re not real adept at working the remote, so you may have to wait awhile before the game you want hits the TV you’re watching.

They have a great selection of beers, but no real gameday specials. The food is good and varied, but I’ll recommend the Flying Pig Wings. And the Bloody Mary.

Did I Miss Your Fave?

Drop me a comment if you think I missed one. I’m always willing to try other places in my quest to find football heaven.

—Ryan Varney

Incline Public House in Cincinnati

Incline Public House in CincinnatiThe Incline Public House in Price Hill on Cincinnati’s west side has a wonderful view of downtown Cincinnati and the riverfront. Sit outside on the patio on a sunny day and enjoy unique appetizers (small bites as they call them), a great meal or maybe just a local craft beer from one of Cincinnati’s resurgent breweries.

If you do choose to go on a nice day, be prepared to wait for outdoor seating – but trust me, it’s worth it. Besides, you can pass the time relaxing at the park next door where the old incline to Price Hill once existed. Take some time to look across 8th Street and imagine what it would have been like to ride the incline down the hill and take a streetcar into downtown. Today the path is overgrown with trees, but you can still see where the incline station previously stood.

The View

Incline Public House view of downtown Cincinnati and the riverfront

The Food

I started with the Cheddar Ale Soup and it was creamy, smooth and rich with just enough French-fried onions to add a little zip. Next I had the burger, and it was in the mold of several Cincinnati burger joints (think Terry’s Turf Club, Gordo’s or Mad Mike’s in Newport) – thick, juicy and piled high with toppings. I also added a side of onion rings. The wide slices of onion were dipped in a light breading and deep-fried for a crispy, flaky coating that allowed the onion flavor to dominate the palate.
For dessert? Chickow!

The Drink

That’s right. I had a beer for dessert. But don’t mistake Triple Digit’s Chickow! beer as just another wannabe craft brewskie. Triple Digit Brewing is the brewery side of homebrew suppliers Listermann Brewing Company. Chickow! is a rich, malty brew that actually satisfies a sweet tooth. With all the potency and complexity of a Belgium-style beer and all the rich fullness of an oatmeal stout, the Chickow! might as well be a dessert.

Besides Triple Digit, the Incline Public House also offers other local breweries including Fifty West, Mt. Carmel, Rivertown and of course, Moerlein. Plus they rotate taps regularly, showcasing a wide variety of styles and flavors.

If you don’t like beer, I would recommend the Bloody Martini (available during brunch). Served in a martini glass, this take on the Bloody Mary features bacon vodka, a hot pickle spear, olives, celery, one thick-cut bacon strip and a jumbo cocktail shrimp. Perhaps it should be classified under “small bites.”

The Upshot

I’ve already told most people I know about the Incline Public House, from the view to the food to the craft beers. I have since received reports back supporting the accuracy of my assessment. In other words, like me, they loved it.

—Ryan Varney

Las Vegas – Know When to Fold ‘Em

It took me 36 years to get to Las Vegas. It took me 36 seconds to lose $1,000.

Just kidding. I went up $40 in Blackjack and immediately cashed out (so I’m a little conservative!). At least the winnings went toward some great food, something I appreciate much more than table games and slots.

Best Eats Not on the Strip

Beef on Weck at Naked City Pizza ShopBuffalo wings at Naked City Pizza Shop
(L) Beef on weck; (R) Authentic Buffalo wings from Naked City Pizza Shop

I went to Vegas with some friends who originally hail from Buffalo, NY. Amazingly, they managed to find a restaurant in Las Vegas that was founded by fellow Buffalonians. The Naked City Pizza Shop, a few miles off the Strip, was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and is well worth the cab fare to get there. Featuring authentic Buffalo wings and beef on weck, Naked City Pizza Shop does Buffalo proud. I ordered a beef on weck half sandwich thinking I’d get some wings and pizza, too, but the half sandwich made a Subway footlong look like a mini-sub. Don’t worry, I still managed to cram in some wings and a few slices of pizza.

The wings were truly Buffalo. I was advised by my Buffalonian companions that real Buffalo wings are fried in peanut oil, which is what gives them such great flavor. Well, that’s exactly how Naked City Pizza Shop makes their wings, in peanut oil. Savory with a slight kick, the medium wings definitely hit the spot.

Naked City Pizza Shop Buffalo Bills Decor
Bills Decor at Naked City Pizza

As a New England fan (Pats and Bruins) I was a little concerned I might not be completely welcomed, but I was relieved to find several other Bruins fans vociferously cheering on the B’s as they swept the Penguins. And it was fun to see all the Bills and Sabres décor.

Another great find was the Peppermill at the very north end of the Strip (so far north, I don’t even count it as being on the Strip). The Peppermill is basically a classy diner – so classy that the food waitresses can’t even take your beverage order. Instead, they call over an actual cocktail waitress in a little black dress to bring your drinks. Peppermill was so good, I ate there twice. Country-fried steak and eggs, thick sourdough toast and the world’s greatest hash browns (no joke, they were AMAZING) and then the Maserati omelet – it does 185 (like this post if you get that reference) – stuffed with Italian sausage, mozzarella, mushrooms and pizza sauce, were the two meals I indulged in.

Best Place Not on the Strip

If you ever get out to Vegas and you don’t make the effort to get to Hoover Dam, for shame. Of all the man-made monstrosities in and around Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam is by far the most amazing. And recently Arizona and Nevada added to the wonder by completing the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which soars majestically above the Colorado River.

I practically got vertigo looking over the edge of the Hoover Dam, and it blows my mind to think of all the workers pouring concrete over 700 feet above the river. What an amazing feat of human engineering! But standing on top of Hoover Dam, it’s breathtaking to see the ridges and canyons containing the Colorado River and Lake Mead. On a clear, sunny day with a gentle breeze, there was no place I’d have rather been.

Hoover Dam Gallery

Hoover Dam name plateHoover Dam back side view
(L) Hoover Dam name plate; (R) The back side view from Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam towersA calm Colorado River
(L) Hoover Dam towers; (R) A low Colorado River – notice the “bathtub” ring
Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial BridgeThe author standing on top of Hoover Dam in Arizona and Nevada
(L) The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge; (R) Me standing in both Arizona and Nevada
Front of the Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam front view (that’s a lotta concrete)

The Strip

While I enjoyed my time away from the Strip, I was still very impressed by it. The hotels are classy, mostly (get it together Circus Circus), with extravagant lobbies full of glass flowers, indoor rivers and even a conservatory. And the exteriors are gorgeous and well-maintained with pools and fountains and of course plenty of lights. I really enjoyed the fountain show at the Bellagio and the pirate ship show outside of Treasure Island.

Scenes from Las Vegas

Fountains at the BellagioFountains at Caesar's Palace
(L) Fountains at the Bellagio; (R) Fountains at Caesar’s Palace
Glass flowers on the Bellagio lobby ceilingInside the Wynn hotel
(L) Glass flowers on the ceiling of the Bellagio lobby; (R) Jenn and I inside the Wynn hotel (nice shoes!)
Volcano erupting outside the Mirage
Volcano ‘erupting’ outside the Mirage

Best Line Regarding Vegas

Before leaving for Las Vegas, I happened to visit with my grandpa. I was telling him about my upcoming trip to ‘Sin City’ and he got this funny little smile on his face. I asked him if he’d ever been there before and he said he had. So what did you think, I asked. His reply?

“I think it’s a great place…to stay away from.”

—Ryan Varney

Food and Sports in Pittsburgh

I’ve spent much of my life around AFC/NFC North cities: Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and to a degree Pittsburgh. Size-wise, Chicago and Detroit are much bigger than the other three, and Chicago is a cut above all of them in just about every way. Naturally, then, I’ve always lumped Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh together as basically the same city just in different locations.

View of Pittsburgh from above Point State Park
View of Pittsburgh from above Point State Park

Well, no diss to my current home city Cincinnati – which I do love and appreciate – but after a recent trip to Pittsburgh, I have to say I’m quite impressed. The architecture downtown is unique and diverse, especially the PPG campus which looks like a modern day castle or fortress. Sharp angles, black glass and steel framework cut into the skyline in a way that’s both beautiful and ominous. Market Square nestles cozily between high-rises, resting on olden days brick roads, giving it the feel of a small town square. Then, a few blocks away is Point State Park, where the skyscrapers give way to a stunning view of the famous three rivers converging. The view from the point is a perfect blend of nature and industry – rushing rivers, rising hills and plenty of trees set a scenic backdrop for a myriad of stately bridges, colorful houses and unique commercial buildings.

One poorly shot video of downtown Pittsburgh on a gloomy day…

But enough romanticizing downtown Pittsburgh…let’s get to the point of the blog: food and sports, food first.

Places to Eat in Pittsburgh

I was only in Pittsburgh for a day and a half, but I did manage to find two great restaurants and an amazing bar.

Seviche

Seviche in Pittsburgh
Seviche in downtown Pittsburgh

Seviche is a Latin-influenced restaurant specializing in tapas and smaller, shareable entrees. I’d highly recommend the Avocado and Corn Seviche with jumbo lump crab meat – a refreshing and zesty seviche perfect for whetting the appetite. Also, for a heartier starter, try the Bistec with filet mignon. Served with natural cut fries, these little quesadillas are rich and savory, buoyed by sweet carmelized onions. Follow up with a Cuban-influenced sushi roll or the Asian Tartare with Ahi Tuna and wash it all down with a pitcher of homemade sangria.

NOLA on the Square

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know I’m a nut for Cajun cookin’. NOLA on the Square does a great job of capturing some Cajun flavor while maintaining its own unique style. Of course, I had to try the gumbo (chicken and sausage) and it was above average. Low on spiciness but quite rich and hearty, NOLA’s gumbo was enhanced by adding a few drops from one of the many hot sauces native to Louisiana they keep on hand. One surprise was the unique drink selections available at NOLA. I give 5 stars to the 1937 Sazerac.

Sharp Edge

By far my favorite stop in downtown Pittsburgh, Sharp Edge, despite its yuppie undertones, has one of the most amazing beer selections (on tap) of anyplace I’ve ever been. Whether you like complex Belgian beers, hoppy IPAs, rich stouts or smooth dunkels, Sharp Edge has the beer to slake your thirst. Plus they have a choice selection of local craft beers and for out-of-towners, you can take them with you. Simply buy a Sharp Edge growler and have it filled with the draft of your choice. Take a little bit of Pittsburgh home with you.

Heinz Field and the Steelers

Heinz Field in PittsburghHeinz Field Steelers Hall of Fame Lockers
Left: At Heinz Field; Right: Steelers HOF at Heinz Field

So the point of my trip to Pittsburgh was to take in a Steelers game at Heinz Field. I was definitely impressed with the openness of Heinz Field and the sea of black and gold it immerses you in. I was not impressed with the concession stands because they are still in the 70s heydays with their cash only policy. Steeler nation is huge and profitable; it’s about time to invest in credit card machines.

I was also not impressed with the lackluster play of the Steelers. With all the dropped passes, I am of the mind to rename the team Hands-of-Steelers. Seriously, an absolutely pathetic display of football.Couple that with your molasses-fast QB as your leading rusher and it’s no wonder the Chargers stole the show. Still, Steeler nation was a site to behold, even on such a gloomy day. Bengals nation should visit and take notes. Just sayin’.

—Ryan Varney

NOLA Gumbo Challenge 2012

The Challenge

For my latest trip to New Orleans I was challenged to eat gumbo at every restaurant I visited. I took the bait. Given how much I love gumbo, it was truly an offer I could not refuse. So for those of you who also love this tasty little dish, here’s the lowdown. (Please excuse some of the blurry photography—in my excitement to get to eating, I may have lost a little control over my motor skills.)

Legend’s at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport

Gumbo at Legends in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport
Legend’s at MSY

I arrived in NOLA at 10:30 am and immediately started in on my mission. Legend’s was the only sit down restaurant serving food at that hour, so I began my challenge with a bowl of their sausage and chicken gumbo. I wasn’t expecting much, so I was pleasantly surprised by the tender and plentiful chunks of chicken and sausage, as well as the spicy kick. The sauce consistency was thicker than most gumbo I’ve eaten which made it more stew than soup. If you’re ever at MSY, and craving some gumbo, I’d recommend a bowl at Legend’s.

Pat O’Brien’s

Gumbo at Pat O'Briens in New Orleans
Pat O’Brien’s
624 Bourbon St.
New Orleans, LA 70130

Pat O’Brien’s is famous for their hurricanes, a very tasty adult beverage, which makes them a very touristy place to go in NOLA. However, despite being a tourist mecca, the gumbo at Pat O’Brien’s was probably the best I had on my trip. Rich and smoky, the sauce oozed the essence of Cajun cooking. Add in spicy andouille sausage and shredded chicken and this was a gumbo to offset any effects from too many hurricanes.

Pier 424 Seafood Market

Gumbo at Pier 424 Seafood Market in New Orleans
Pier 424 Seafood Market
424 Bourbon St.
New Orleans, LA 70112

Pier 424 Seafood Market sits amid the chaos that is Bourbon Street. Sitting outside on the second level deck, it was a great place to watch the drunken revelers stagger down Bourbon Street—while enjoying a nice cup o’ gumbo. Pier 424’s gumbo was eerily similar to Pat O’Brien’s gumbo in sauce flavor and texture, but theirs had the added bonus of baby shrimp thrown into the mix. (Well, duh, it’s called Pier 424 Seafood Market.) Still, given the choice, if you find yourself on Bourbon Street, I’d stagger a little further on down to Pat O’Brien’s.

The Original French Market Restaurant & Bar

Gumbo at he Original French Market Restaurant in New Orleans
The Original French Market Restaurant & Bar
1001 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70116

The Original French Market Restaurant & Bar prides itself on its long history in New Orleans. My experience there has certainly proven its stability. I was last in NOLA two years ago, and stumbled across this historical bar. I thought it would be fun to revisit old memories, so I made it a point to stop in this trip. It was like I never left. Upon entering, I found myself being served by the same waitress I had two years ago, while my drinks were poured by the same bartender. Deja vu. The food was the same, too—a good thing. Last trip, I did not have the gumbo, but obviously I had to try it this time. It did not disappoint. A little soupier than my previous bowls, the Original French Market Restaurant & Bar gumbo was still loaded with sausage, shrimp and crawfish. To enhance the flavor, every bowl is served with a full bay leaf, lending it an authentic Cajun flair.

Huck Finn’s

Gumbo at Huck Finn's in New Orleans
Huck Finn’s
135 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70130

Huck Finn’s is a fun little sports joint on the edge of the French Quarter. Tons of big screen TVs and sports memorabilia, yet somehow not your run-of-the-mill sports bar. The gumbo was good, but not great (though most of the food at Huck Finn’s is pretty darn good, generally speaking). Perhaps it was too much green onion or maybe a lack of rice, but the overall feel on the palette just seemed a little off. Still, the flavor was zesty from the nice chunks of hot peppers and the sausage was sliced extra thick. One other note: if you’re in the mood for a Bloody Mary while in New Orleans, definitely go to Huck Finn’s.

Fiorella’s Cafe

Gumbo at Fiorella's Cafe in New Orleans
Fiorella’s Cafe
45 French Market Pl.
New Orleans, LA 70116

Fiorella’s Cafe is known as a great place to get fried chicken in NOLA (and indeed it was outstanding), but the gumbo was a nice bonus. Served in a huge bowl and with a side of thick-sliced French bread, Fiorella’s gumbo was laden with chicken and sausage. The French bread was perfect for sopping up the excess sauce and tempering the spice. For me it was certainly a great way to cap off the gumbo challenge.

Conquering the Challenge

Sadly, my gumbo-fest had to come to an end. However, I am quite pleased to have eaten six bowls on my trip. I would’ve eaten more, but several restaurants I ate at did not serve gumbo. (To those restaurants I say, “C’mon man. You’re in NOLA for Saints sake.”) Perhaps my only regret was not tampering with the gumbo by adding some of the many hot sauces provided. As a guy who enjoys spicy food, I do wonder if adding some extra kick would’ve enhanced some of the gumbos. As a side note, I did try some of the more uniquely-named hot sauces offered, and they were quite hot. And if you’re ever in the mood for spicy goodness, you can always try some of these hot sauces.

If you ever find yourself in New Orleans, maybe my gumbo challenge will give you some options if you’re in the mood for gumbo. I know I can’t wait to get back to NOLA and hunt down more of this Cajun fave I so often crave.

—Ryan Varney