Sunday, October 7, 2007
in the North Market
59 Spruce St.
Columbus, OH 43215
Date of Visit: Saturday, October 6, 2007, 10 a.m.
IMPRESSIONS: So this review is a bit impromptu, but still a lot of fun to put together. This past Saturday, Beth and I were visiting the North Market, one of our favorite spots in Columbus. We swung through the farmers' market and then grabbed lunch before I had to go open the candle shop for Gallery Hop. Although there's a lot of goodies to be found at North Market, our favorites include Lac Viet Vietnamese food and this place, North Market Poultry & Game, right across the aisle from each other. The poultry place is primarily a meat market, and their lengthy display counters hold every type of meat imaginable: chicken, turkey, beef, pork, ham, goose, duck, rabbits, bison, alligator, even ostrich eggs. But to the side of their display cases is this small counter where they serve prepared food. This counter has grown in size and selection over the past few years, and recently they began serving a Cuban breakfast. Thus, my stop; and thus, my review. Because of the impromptu nature of the review, all of the pictures were taken on either my cell phone or Beth's. So, apologies in advance for the grainy quality (but that's still pretty good for cell phones, yeah?).
ATMOSPHERE: This is a little different than being in a sit-down joint. Basically, you're in the North Market, so you're surrounded by all manner of food stalls and therefore all manner of food smells. We typically go on Saturday mornings, which means you've got a wide mix of folks: people buying produce at the farmer's market out front, trendy couples who biked in to get their morning coffee (or Segway'd as we saw one couple do), visitors from the Convention Center wearing name badges and wandering around until they eventually settle on Chinese food (just kidding, but not really), families eating lunch and finishing it off with some Jeni's Ice Cream. And everyone in between. In other words: busy, fun, and stimulating for your senses. Everything a market should be. You can order food at NM Poultry & Game to-go or to consume in-market. If you choose the latter, they'll give you an honest-to-goodness plate and honest-to-greatness silverware. Pick the former, and it's Styrofoam and plastic for you, kid.
FOOD: This place focuses on taking their well-raised, well-treated foods and whipping them into some of the best comfort food in Columbus. They usually have only 4-5 meals available any given day, but they exemplify the adage to be really good at just a few things instead of being mediocre at a lot. Case in point: their cassoule, which is a type of soupy casserole, their chicken a la king, their amazing chicken salads (served on Oat Nut bread!), their melones (a Polish concoction of breaded sausage wrapped and then baked around a cheese center. And all of these are graced by sides like mashed potatoes, biscuits, green beans. All home-cooked and delicious.
The picture at the top of this post shows the sign describing the Cuban breakfast and all that goes into it. They varied the recipe that day, based on what they had fresh (which isn't a bad way to dine out). I had the two eggs (over-easy, my new favorite preparation), the black beans (which really were smoky and meaty), the pico de gallo, and a dollop of sour cream. Instead of the corn bread, they had fresh-baked biscuits, which I think fit the breakfast better. (Not to mention the nice, soft butter they put on it.) And instead of the turkey sausage, they gave me a cheese and japaleno sausage link. I generally avoid sausage with any sort of insertion, but this one I didn't mind. The cheese fit the whole setup, and the jalapeno was not overwhelming; plus it gave the breakfast a needed kick. I could imagine some strong coffee complementing this meal well. Overall, the breakfast is a little soupy, but the flavors mix incredibly. The key, I realized, was to cut slices of things and try to scoop bits together... a little bit of egg, a little bit of meat, some black beans and veggies. The textures and flavors blend into a rich and complex taste. It's a hearty and colorful breakfast. Here it is in all its glory:
Makes you want one, doesn't it?
SERVICE: Service is always great at NM Poultry & Game. You can tell these folks are invested in their work, and proud of it. Any time you ask them to describe their wares, they do so boldly and with colorful descriptions. I didn't catch the name of the guy who made my Cuban breakfast, but he told me that he rarely gets to make the breakfast, so he was trying to make it amazing. I helped him by loudly complimenting the result. Here he is preparing it:
Halfway through the preparation, he showed me the pan with my two eggs over-easy. He told me they were probably the best, most beautiful eggs he's ever prepared. I believed him, so when he turned his back, I snapped a picture of them:
Yeah, I think I agree. That's a work of art.
OVERALL: Okay, so this place isn't your traditional breakfast joint, but this particular dish merited it's own entry. It's freshly and lovingly prepared, and I can't think of many other places in town that offer a Cuban breakfast. Whether any of the employees are actually Cuban is beyond my knowledge, and I also can't judge whether this is authentically Cuban, but it's tasty nonetheless. And it's a pretty healthy breakfast: the eggs, meat, and black beans provide the protein, salsa gives you fruits and vegetables, the biscuit is your grain. And I guess the sour cream rounds it out with dairy. So there you go: a meal that completes the food pyramid. The breakfast is just the right size, too. Filling, but not overly so. All this goes to say that I'll probably order it again. They have every reason to be proud of their food. It sorta sets the standard for comfort food.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Open Monday-Friday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Date of Visit: July 4, 2007, 10:00 a.m.
IMPRESSIONS: So I'm actually reviewing this place after the third visit. I guess this one just required some more research! Oh well... I've been driving by Jack & Benny's for five years now; that big "Breakfast served all day" has tempted me, and when I read about the place as one of the "Ten Places Every Ohio State Student Should Go Before Graduating," (see here) I knew I had to visit. I finally went with Chip one morning while working on our house. For anyone who has been to Yesterdog in Grand Rapids, MI, I usually frame a description of Jack & Benny's by saying that this place looks like a Yesterdog that serves breakfast. The building is early/mid-2oth century, with wooden floors, a tin ceiling, a big long counter with swiveling stools, and booths against the walls. Hanging on the walls are signed pictures of famous people who have frequented the place, most notably a range of Ohio State football players and coaches. There's more than one photo of the owners with Ohio State Football Coach Jim Tressell (aka God). On the other walls hang old Coca-Cola posters; one display case is crammed full of Ohio State bobbleheads; another shelf is lined with old beer steins and coffee mugs. And all of this adds up to something: from 2004 to the present, the restaurant was voted the AOL City's Best Breakfast and Best Comfort Food.
The restaurant itself is located on a busy corner at Hudson St. and N. High St., just north of the campus area. It's within walking distance of practically every Ohio State student who lives close to campus. Parking is easy: there are 2-hour spaces along High St. right next to the restaurant, as well as spaces on some side streets, although all bets are off on football Saturdays: the High St. spots are null and void those days (to keep people from parking there and walking to the stadium). If the place is busy, you have to sign in on a little pad, and they won't seat you until everyone in your party is there. The one time I've been there when it's busy, we only waited 5-10 minutes before a table opened. They cycle folks in and out pretty quickly.
ATMOSPHERE: As expected from any diner - especially one this small - the place is noisy, busy, and crowded. But there's a certain charm to it all. It's the noise of close conversations, the cook clattering his instruments against the stove, the dishwasher spraying dishes in the corner, and the ding of the "Order up" bell. The place is typically full of students and families. Two TVs hanging up in the corners are tuned to CNN, although you can never hear them.
FOOD: Jack & Benny's menu isn't exceptional, although there's a range of choices, plus a kids menu and a lunch menu (which I didn't explore). Everything from omelets (plenty of variations on a theme there), basic meat-n-eggs combos, pancakes and other carbs, and the all-in-one combos, aka the Busters (I'll get to those in a moment). The charm is in the details: The food is served on good ole plastic diner plates, set atop plastic placemats. The creamer for your coffee is served chilled. On my third visit, I sat at a counter stool, and my legs didn't fit. While sitting there, I watched the cook fold an omelet five times over in one scoop.
Jack & Benny's signature items include two dishes. One is the Buckeye pancake. I've never tried it, although Ryan did when I went with he and Karl on my second visit. He declared it good: it's a pancake with chocolate chips and peanut butter, aka the Buckeye! The second is the Busters, which are a series of entrees that involve the following: an egg cooked to order, a slice of bacon, a sausage patty, a potato pancake, hash browns, cheese, toast, and sausage gravy to cover it all. Different Busters sport different combinations, and the big one, the Gut Buster, includes all of the above. My Gut Buster is pictured below (on the left):
Below is a close-up of the fabled Buster. It really doesn't live up to it's name. Instead, it's just a tasty, filling breakfast. The gravy is nice and peppery, the bread is a little too slathered with butter, but the portions aren't out of control. Now that I look at it, it really doesn't look that large. It's not like this is an omelet with 5 pounds of meat, 12 eggs, and a stick of butter. This meal will fill you up, but it won't leave you sitting on the can the rest of the day.
Jack & Benny's, like all good diners and breakfast nooks, serves their coffee in those curious brown diner mugs. There's something heartlessly generic but heartwarmingly familiar about those mugs. They're used to serve a particular brand of coffee, most often known as "brown." For a deeper look into the search for brown, I refer you to my favorite expert on all things coffee-related, Mr. Karl Boettcher.
When I was last at Jack & Benny's, I snapped a picture of my coffee mug with my cell phone camera. I just had to capture the phenomenon. I think that these little brown mugs are a perfect specimen of Americana. In addition to hot dogs, rock and roll, and baseball, this is our contribution to world culture.
SERVICE: The service is straightforward diner service: fast, friendly, and over-attentive. The first time Chip and I visited, the server hovered over us and refilled our coffee practically after every sip. There seems to be a regular crowd of servers there, perhaps they're family. The food comes out quickly, and everything is handled fast. What more can I say? They know how to make you feel welcome and how to feed you quickly.
OVERALL: Jack & Benny's is not the place for your elegant brunch. It's a straightforward, American diner. The food is basic, well prepared, and easy to eat. It's inexpensive, too; most entrees will run you $4-6, and will completely fill you up. And in addition to being a good meal, it's worth stepping back in time and experiencing the American and, more specifically, the Buckeye, flavor of the place.