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Her Night Out

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Romantic-ish Pre-Valentine’s dinner and drinks at one of OTR’s newest hot spots.

One of the most recent dining and nightlife hot spots to pop up on Vine Street is Japanese GastroPub and sushi bar, Kaze OTR. Located on the first floor of the former Cincinnati Color Company building, the restaurant, which is pronounced “Kah-zey,” boasts a balanced blend of hip and romantic — perfect for a Valentine’s Day dinner. 

To test out the Valentine-ness of it all, my date was a person I will always love: my best friend, Heather. We decided to eat at the bar the Friday night we stopped by because not a single table was open, which was wonderful to see at a new restaurant. (It should be noted that the night we went, the full dining room wasn’t open to the public yet, only the bar area. The full restaurant should be open mid-January.)

Kaze’s interior was dimly lit (10 romance points) and featured dark wood furniture with pops of color provided by Asian accent lanterns and three widescreen TVs on the wall across from the bar. There were tables on either side of the front door, each enclosed by a huge windowpane and some curtains. It felt very open, which might not seem conducive to romance, but I liked the feeling of inviting the atmosphere of the bar into the dining experience.

Heather and I stared at the menu — and mock-longingly at each other — as we tried to think of what food qualified as “romantic.” In reality, everything on the small, light fare menu is geared toward people in love with good food … and possibly each other. We decided to be adventurous in our selection and that meant trying something called the Uni Shooter, a Japanese-inspired sea urchin shot. 

Heather and I both ordered one because they were described by our efficient bartender Nicholas as tasting “like the ocean in a glass.” Heather has never been to an ocean, so we figured this was as close as she could get for the time being. The shots arrived — and we were a tad hesitant.

Accented by a slice of cucumber, the sea urchin was like a little glob in the shot glass. We looked at each other, toasted our glasses and sucked it down. It was slimy and did in fact taste like the ocean. Not bad, not spectacular, but I’m willing to concede that I’m not the most adventurous foodie, so perhaps (probably) the Uni Shooter will appeal to those who are. 

We each ordered a drink, too. I got the Araki, Kaze’s take on the Manhattan, which is phenomenal. It’s named after the artist that did the artwork in the building, a friend of owner Jon Zipperstein. Heather had a classic vodka tonic, always a good choice. 

We perused the menu, which will be expanded when the dining room opens, and Heather ordered the Pork Buns while I chose The OTR Roll. After we placed our order, Nicholas offered us a tour of the under-construction dining room and back garden. We grabbed our drinks and followed him over a little bridge that connects the dining room and the bar, passed the open kitchen walkway and saw what is going to be a fantastic dining room.

Kaze’s dining room is full of dark wood tables and the sushi bar is the main attraction. Positioned at the back of the dining room, we were introduced to the head chef, Hideki Harada (formerly of Embers in Kenwood) who was busy preparing a myriad of food but greeted us warmly. Nicholas then led us to the back patio, which was mostly just-broken ground, but the vision he described is one I can’t wait to experience.

Last on our tour was a stop to the ladies room, which you reach by taking an elevator to the basement. My fellow females will appreciate this: The bathroom is massive. Brightly decorated with distinctly modernist floral wallpaper and huge sinks, the bathroom is seriously one of the best in OTR. Our food arrived moments after we returned to our seats. The OTR Roll — with tuna, avocado, cucumber and a spicy scallion ponzu sauce — was great.  The Pork Buns were soft and stuffed with slightly unwieldy, crispy pork. Heather’s one-word review after taking a bite: “Awesome.”

I think my favorite part of Kaze OTR was the fact that so many different people stopped in over the course of our time there. In addition to the six people that eventually joined Heather and I for our romantic night out, a number of other familiar faces were present and the open atmosphere really invited mingling and chatting. I loved it and foresee many more stops to this burgeoning section of Vine Street, especially once the full menu is unveiled and the dining room and patio are open.

Trading happy hour for healthy hour in the New Year.

I am not a skinny woman. I was a skinny little girl, but I am not a thin adult. 

Like most American women, my weight has fluctuated over the years and I’ve fallen off the exercise wagon one too many times a wagon that’s hard to get on after sitting at my desk for eight hours a day. 

But I decided it was time to find the motivation to work out after work and get fit. 

I’m not going to write a trite story about resolutions because I’m not making a resolution. This isn’t about weight loss. It’s about making a promise to myself to get healthy, become active, and have fun, regardless of the New Year. 

I needed to find a way to make an evening workout interesting, something to look forward to instead of dread. So I decided to look into different types of exercise classes. 

Classes provide you with a weekly schedule so deciding on a class is almost like making a workout appointment with yourself. Classes also give you an opportunity to socialize, which is infinitely more engaging than listening to your iPod on a treadmill.  

I found some interesting ways to spend a night out working out. Instead of drinking during happy hour, I’ll be sweating and hopefully loving it. 

Rhythm And Motion 

6:30-7:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays with daytime classes the rest of the week. Cincinnati Ballet, 1555 Central Parkway, OTR, cballet.org

Rhythm and Motion is a dance class that incorporates a serious cardiovascular workout set to a fist-pumping playlist, followed by toning exercises. Started by choreographer Heather Britt in California, R&M is intimidating. I can’t lie. I was terrified on my first day. Excited, but also terrified. Moving my arms and my feet at the same time is a feat I can’t claim to be proficient in. So on my first day, I snuck into the back of class as unobtrusively as possible. I met two lovely and welcoming women and felt more at ease. 

Every class starts with a mini-breakdown of a new dance, which everyone mimics. And then it progresses to a run-through of 10 songs. I mixed up and raised my hands in the opposite direction or jumped to the left instead of the right many, many times but it only fueled my desire to get better. I was sweating profusely but also felt uninhibited. I looked at R&M as a master class version of my weekend shimmying at bars, and it definitely helped me not feel so awkward for looking like, well, an uncoordinated dancer.  

At the end of the dancing (cardio) portion, I had caught on to some songs more than others. The ab and arm toning exercises absolutely killed me. My calves and abs hurt for the next four days, but in that this means you still have abs/this is a good thing kind of way. It felt great. 

Callback: I went the following week and the week after. I’m hooked. (Full disclosure,  I’m a marketing assistant at the ballet, so it made it easier to get to the class after work but didn’t affect my opinion of the workout.)

Core Yoga 

6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday (during December could change for January). You Do Yoga, 1319 Main St., OTR, youdoyoga.com. 

Yoga was next on my list. I arrived to class a few minutes early and chatted with the instructor, Kate, who was fantastic. There were only two of us in class on this day (myself and a guy) so the individual-focus aspect was nice. Kate moved us through a whole battery of yoga moves but broke down each one and reminded us to focus on our breathing. I found it to be really intense. I had previously thought of yoga as a pretty, non-sweaty exercise routine, but as Kate explained, there are two kinds of yoga: yin and yang (like the symbol). 

Yin is feminine and focuses on still positions and stretching. Yang is masculine and focuses on constant motion. I definitely took more to the yang yoga; it engaged my body more, I felt, and I was able to consistently feel what was supposed to be happening. Yin was a little harder to connect with probably because I’m a person constantly on the go, but there was one particular moment when everything clicked and I felt very lean and stretched. I definitely stood straighter for the next two days, despite my soreness again, the good, I was productive kind.

Callback: I haven’t gone back because of time constraints, but I can see myself working yoga into a monthly routine.  

Zumba 

7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday and 5:45-6:45 p.m. Friday with daytime classes during the rest of the week. LA Fitness, 119 Fairfield Ave., Bellevue, Ky., lafitness.com. 

I’ve wanted to try Zumba for a while now. I finally signed up for a guest pass to LA Fitness (formerly Urban Active) and zipped down to Northern Kentucky to see what all the hype was about. I definitely felt out of place in the big-box fitness place atmosphere, but I took it all in stride and remembered my motivation: I wanted to get fit. And then I chided myself for feeling awkward because the main goal of everyone at these places is to get fit, and I commend that attitude, so I sucked it up and bottled my nerves and just threw myself into class.  

There were only women that night and definitely the largest variety of ages I’d seen yet. My instructor, Nora, was super energetic and class moved fast. We started with a simple dance and everything was set to zippy, Latinate dance tunes. I recognized the repetition again, which seems to be the calling card of dancing. (Who would’ve thought?) In any case, I didn’t prove to be any better here than at R&M, but I was doggedly determined again to get through it. I caught on a bit more about three-quarters of the way through and was absolutely dripping with sweat at the end. I enjoyed myself, but I didn’t feel the stretch and burn as much as I had in my other classes probably because I did a lot of it wrong, honestly.  

Callback: I haven’t gone back to this either, but don’t let that dissuade you. It’s a pumped-up cardio workout, for sure. 

Lesson learned? I like consistency and I lost approximately eight pounds in two weeks from exercise and better eating combined. I was dead tired from work every time but found a burst of energy (dopamine, anyone?) after each class, which fueled more productivity at home in the form of finishing tasks such as cleaning and laundry. So exercise is good for all parts of your life. I promise to keep it up!

Who needs to go out when you can stay in and watch these gems?

Watching corny holiday movies on basic cable throughout the month of December is a national nostalgic pastime and a rite of passage for pretty much every American. Instead of a night out, spend a night or two in with friends and family and this list of classic holiday movies.

Favorite Holiday Movie of All Time:

Home Alone

No other Christmas movie gets me as excited as this cinematic masterpiece. Snarky, brave, sweet little misfit Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is the youngest in a jumbled family that accidentally forgets him at home in the melee of leaving to spend Christmas in Paris. Forced to fend for himself, you think he’s going to do just fine making well-balanced microwave dinners and buying toothbrushes by himself, but the Wet Bandits, busy burglarizing empty homes in his neighborhood over the holidays, have other plans. Watch Kevin outwit the nitwits, defend his home and learn some valuable lessons on self-preservation (see: shaving scene). The bustling family dynamic is effortless, and writer John Hughes recognized how the world looks through the eyes of children and adults alike, bringing both perspectives together in a way that feels honest and relevant even 22 years later. The score, composed by John Williams — especially Williams’ rendition of “Carol of the Bells” — is amazing. And I wish I could rent the made-for-the-movie gangster film Kevin watches, Angels with Filthy Souls. But I can’t. So I’ll just have to rent Home Alone. Keep the change, you filthy animal.

Most Tear-Jerking:

The Snowman

I vividly remember the first time I saw this wonderful, dialogue-free 1982 animated film, introduced by David Bowie. I was in the third grade, and completely entranced by the gorgeous score and simple story. A boy awakens to a huge snowfall and makes a snowman that comes to life that night. The pair become fast friends, and the snowman takes the boy on a magical journey, including a night-flight over London. The ending is the definition of bittersweet, perhaps the best allegory for childhood. My best friend reminded me of this movie; it’s funny what holiday films perfectly align with your friends’ and family members’ personalities and values. Hug your loved ones after watching The Snowman — it reminds you to cherish the fleeting time we spend together, another allegory exemplified during the crushingly busy holidays.

Best Stop-Motion Animation:

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This is my mom’s favorite holiday movie, and I have been indoctrinated in the clever (and vaguely creepy) world of stop-motion animation since childhood. Rudolph is born to reindeer Donner and his wife and is ostracized by most of the residents of the North Pole due to his seemingly defective glowing red nose (all of the reindeer laughed and called him names). Rudolph decides to run away with Hermey, an elf who wants to be a dentist, and stumbles upon the Island of Misfit Toys. The tale culminates with Rudolph’s nose saving Christmas. The music is great and the animation, while not Pixar-quality, has a more authentic feel. A whole slew of these great stop-motion films exist, and this particular uplifting story about finding acceptance is the longest-running Christmas TV special.

Best Example of Perseverance Paying Off:

A Christmas Story

Where do I even begin? Is it the yearly 24-hour TBS marathon of this 1983 classic? Or Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) borderline-delusional attempts at securing a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas? So many hilarious vignettes, one-liners and subplots abound in this movie, it’s hard to pick the best (my favorite is anything involving Randy, the hilarious little brother). Basically, Ralphie really wants a BB gun for Christmas, but everyone tells him how dangerous it is. He’s not allowed to have it because the adults claim he’ll shoot his eye out — and he almost does. We observe Ralphie’s daily life in post-World War II Indiana (cue awesome costumes) as he doggedly pursues his Red Ryder, only to be foiled in various ways by various foes. The unsung hero of this movie is Ralphie’s cursing, leg-lamp-winning dad. But I think it was the narrator I fell in love with the first time I saw A Christmas Story, who I later learned was author Jean Shepherd, upon whose short stories the movie is based. I notice something new and amusing with every subsequent viewing of this film, but the ache for a simpler time always remains.

Most Inspirational:

It’s A Wonderful Life

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is the American dream personified. He makes hard decisions from a selfless place, and is equally rewarded and rejected. A sad turn of events leads travel-minded dreamer George to assume leadership of the family’s Bailey Building and Loan, setting him up for a far different (albeit happy) life with wife Mary and their four kids. The pressure of the small-town setbacks he repeatedly experiences reaches a breaking point when vital funds go missing from the business. George encounters his guardian angel, Clarence, at this low point, and wishes he’d never been born — and we all know how that goes. George is shown the lives of his loved ones as they struggle without his existence, and learns the impact he has had in his time. Uncle Billy, Clarence and Violet, the secondary characters, are my favorites because of their realism and humor — watch Clarence order a drink. The ripple effect in this movie has always been the most striking element for me, and the sentiment and tangibility of George’s desperation feels especially timely these days. I adore Stewart, and cry (sob) every single time I watch this movie. It stands the test of time with its accurate portrayal of the foibles we as humans encounter and overcome.

Honorable Mentions:

Miracle on 34th Street: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” Still doesn’t clear up for me whether Santa exists or not.

Die Hard: A friend told me this is his favorite Christmas movie, and I like Bruce Willis.

Babes in Toyland: Little Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves sing about Cincinnati during an adventure in Toyland. Yes, please.

Elf: Modern-day classic. Will Ferrell is ridiculously amusing as a man-child elf in New York City.

Evaluating the experience at independent and chain movie theaters/

I love movies.I haven’t seen nearly as many I should, but the ones I have seen, I’ve made sure to be good ones. And I find that one of the most important parts of a moviegoing adventure, which can really make or break your opinion of a film, is the physical cinema experience. Because you aren’t in your living room, and you can’t control the volume or the audience, how the theater approaches everything from snacks to seats to sound has a big impact. So I did a compare and contrast of my recent film experiences at an independent theater and a theater chain to see how they stack up.  

Esquire Theatre 

Built in 1911, the Esquire began as a 500-seat, single auditorium theater, and became an art-film theater house in the 1950s. Closed in 1983, nearly turned into a Wendy’s, saved by the Clifton Theatre Corporation and ultimately reopened in 1990, the Esquire retains an old-timey flavor upon first sight. The flashing bulbs on the marquee, the Art Deco wall tiles and the quaint, outdoor ticket booth never fail to excite me. Fantastic indie movie posters for current screenings are displayed along either side of the Esquire’s vintage exterior, and inside is just as original. Seeing a movie at the Esquire is definitely a unique experience. 

On this particular night, the Esquire was showing a sold-out screening of Jim Henson’s 1986 cult classic Labyrinth. The theater has six screening rooms, one of which is the “large” one where they show special one-off screenings like Labyrinth (and the upcoming Little Shop of Horrors and Pyscho). Joined by six friends, I grabbed a seat front and center to revel in all of David Bowie’s campy, tight-pantsed glory. 

On special screening nights, I’ve found that the audience unites as one, excited to see a film that left the big screen decades ago. Something magical happens when your childhood memories are 20 feet tall and the theater surround sound encompasses you in a fairytale land you still believe in, deep down.  

On that note, every other Saturday at midnight, the Esquire screens The Rocky Horror Picture Show, presented by the Denton Affair. Created by two fans back in 1979, the Denton Affair encourages audience members to dress up and actively participate in the showing of the cult classic. Props, shouted lines and costumes are de rigueur. The Esquire has other regular special one-night engagements, usually fitting within a holiday or month theme, so like them on Facebook to keep up-to-date with the latest screenings. 

The Esquire also boasts an open food policy, meaning you can bring your own food into the theater and aren’t chastised for partaking in the booze available for purchase at the back refreshment bar. This is probably the most realistically refreshing part of seeing a movie at the Esquire — besides the chance to catch a lesser-shown movie that doesn’t hit the big-box theater circuit. You can drink alcohol and you won’t get robbed spending $16 on over-priced and over-buttered popcorn and a jumbo pop.  

I sipped on a Yuengling, chowed on Skyline and reveled in every over-the-top moment of Labyrinth.

Rave Motion Pictures 

Picture this, my friends: not a drop of chemical-butter on the carpet, no lines, a bar, lounge seats that recline and a waiter. That’s just a smidgen of what awaits you when you select the VIP seating experience at Florence’s Rave Motion Pictures.  

I went on a Monday night (hence the lack of lines, I’m sure) to check out Looper, a time-travel mind-bender starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. And what’s that you say? Would I like a vodka tonic while watching? Don’t mind if I do.  

When I was first told about VIP seating, I just assumed it was the upper level of the theater with a mini bar in the condiment area. As it turns out, Rave is really onto something. They’ve given seeing a movie in a chain theater, admittedly not always the most pleasant situation, an upscale makeover.  

The fully stocked bar is centrally located in the lounge, and they even serve entrees. The prices are a little steep, but comparable to what you’d pay for a popcorn-and-pop combo at any other chain theater. A waiter/theater employee seats you at your pre-selected and super comfy loveseat-like lounge chair, and then you’re shown a magical button you can press to have your VIP server bring you more booze or food. 

I discovered that you have to close your tab at the front bar before reopening it with the theater server, which is kind of redundant, but whatever. I’m not complaining too much if a nice person brings me another drink when I so desire, ensuring I don’t have to miss a second of the movie.  

And did I mention the VIP area is quiet? No one under the age of 21 is allowed in VIP, which is awesome and automatically cuts the chatty background noise. It was so nice to not hear sniffling kids or whispering, giggling teenagers. I didn’t think I was that cranky old lady in the theater, but I totally am. I relished the entire experience. Also, it was so clean. Really a nice touch to set Rave apart from other chain theaters.

Obviously, this is one for the adults, but I think it would be totally acceptable for you to park your kids downstairs in the main theater and then snuggle up to your sweetie for a good two hours in the adult-land of VIP seating upstairs. If I had kids, I’d save on the sitter and do just that. 

A rundown of Cincinnati’s ‘empty orchestra’ scene.

I learned the definition of the word “karaoke” while watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother. In it, an intoxicated Ted Mosby (or as I like to call him, Ted Hot-sby), one of the main characters, drunkenly marvels, “Did you know the word ‘karaoke’ is Japanese for ‘empty orchestra’? Isn’t that hauntingly beautiful?” It is indeed, Ted. And so is karaoke in Cincinnati.

Karaoke With Bree

The Drinkery is a chameleon of a bar — a ridiculous dance party on the weekends and a hole-in-the-wall-ish neighborhood pub on weekdays. On a recent Tuesday, my lady friends and I decided to indulge in a little therapeutic singing during karaoke with emcee, Bree. This particular karaoke is kind of a wild card because you never know who will wander in off Main Street. This specific night, it was an amateur young professionals choir. I can’t make this stuff up. We grabbed a table right up front, and the night turned into a friendly version of “anything you can sing, I can sing higher.” We listened to a ringing rendition of Sinatra, Carly Rae Jepsen’s ubiquitous “Call Me Maybe” and basically everything else awesome. The crowd really gets going around 11 p.m., so arriving fashionably late isn’t a problem. Tuesdays, The Drinkery, 1150 Main St., OTR

Sexy Time Live Band Karaoke

My absolute favorite karaoke of all time takes place Wednesday nights at the Northside Tavern. Sexy Time, a live band composed of four local musicians, provides musical accompaniment for the brave individuals who get up on stage to sing solo, no backing tracks or anything. It’s the experience of being the front person of a band.

The three rounds of karaoke start roughly at 10 p.m. with an impressive mix of hits from the 1960s through the 2000s, including pinch-hitters like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and lesser-knowns like the White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid.” I’ve been to Live Band so many times that my request for Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” has been added to the roster. On this particular Wednesday, my friend Matt and I performed what he dubbed “The Nirvana Block,” and I’m pretty sure we did Kurt Cobain some kind of justice.  

Every time I’ve been, the band gets progressively drunker as the night wears on (just like in real life!) and the energy level continues to rise. You can find the bartenders, and even other random local band members, frequently crooning away on stage. Wednesdays, Northside Tavern, 4163 Hamilton Ave., Northside, northsidetav.com.

Karaoke Thursday With DJ Will Corson

I arrived at Below Zero prepared to sing by myself. None of my close friends were available to join me, but I figured I could manage to belt a few songs and check out the atmosphere alone. I asked some guys smoking outside if they would be my karaoke spirit guides, but they gently declined, as they were there to scope out the amateur drag show at The Cabaret, the upstairs room of Below Zero. “You’re at Below Zero karaoke, honey. You don’t need a coach,” one gentleman told me. (I was eventually joined by some pals, anyway.)

Inside, there were the requisite karaoke all-stars, regulars so good they were whispered about during their performances. And I was told by Joan, the lovely lady manning the door, that when local colleges are in session this karaoke gets semi-professional; tons of College Conservatory of Music and Northern Kentucky University students participate. 

And though school hadn’t started yet, that spirit was evident. At one point, during a spot-on rendition of “Proud Mary,” the stage was bursting with bubbles. It was maybe my favorite karaoke moment ever, so over-the-top it just fit perfectly. The selection of songs includes tons of show tunes and really unabashed show-off songs, so bring your A-game and dust off that vibrato. Thursdays, Below Zero Lounge, 1122 Walnut St., Downtown, belowzerolounge.com.

Karaoke Everyday

When I pulled up to Tostado’s with my friend, I knew the night was going to be ridiculous, in the best way possible, especially after a parking lot stranger randomly greeted us with, “It’s Tostado’s. You’re gonna get drunk.” He spoke the truth. 

Joined by another friend, we ordered dinner off the extensive menu and settled in with our margaritas. Karaoke starts around 9 p.m. and takes place in the center of the restaurant on a little parquet floor. The assortment of people at Tostado’s was the most varied I’ve ever seen at any karaoke: There was a birthday party for some senior citizens at a table opposite us, couples perched at tall tables in the upper dining room, lots of guys in brightly-colored collared shirts and some salt-of-the-earth locals. A gentleman named Billy Tapp kindly presented us with hand-decorated CDs of his own songs, two drunk thirty-something ladies danced all over each other, the birthday party produced an adorable grandma singing Dolly Parton and I sang Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” I can honestly say that I’ve never had more fun at a new bar before in my life, and I will be going back very, very soon. Every day, Tostado’s Grill, 3500 Eastern Ave., East End.

Django Western Taco offers options for drinkers and diners.

Guys, I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other a bit through my previous two “Her Night Outs,” so I think it’s safe to say that you know I like to make bad/obvious/weak jokes. Therefore, it’s only fitting that for my third “Night Out,” I take the person who inspired my terrible joke-making the most: my mom. 

Yes, I took my mom out on a dinner date, and no, it wasn’t miles and miles away. My mom thinks I get embarrassed by her, and sometimes I do, but mostly I think she’s hilarious and sweet and I love her. So I took her out for some Southwestern fare at Django Western Taco to show her how much I care.  

It wouldn’t be a day hanging out with my mom if we didn’t get somewhat lost, but this time it was through no fault of our own. I had Googled Django’s address on my (sort of) smart phone, but it was pretty hard to find. There was no signage outside, and the address — 4046 Hamilton Ave. in Northside — didn’t seem to exist. I finally called the restaurant, and as my mom was driving us down Blue Rock Road, I saw the street number typed on a piece of paper taped to a glass door, but it was kind of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it situation.  

Once we found the restaurant, we parked behind the forest green building and walked in the door. It was nothing like I expected. Rather minimalist, the interior was a refreshing change from the cloying aesthetics so many restaurants and bars try to employ. There were a few community-style dining tables on the main floor by the bar, then stairs that led to a second bar and a secluded, little room to the right with just enough dim lighting and distance to satisfy my desire for a quiet corner to dine in.  

My mom and I sat down at a back table, and, thrilled by the tin wall behind us that was painted a rust color, she exclaimed, “Put that in your article!” And so, obedient daughter that I am, I did.  

We were promptly greeted by our server. She was very efficient and knowledgeable, effortlessly and succinctly breaking down the somewhat vague menu options. Django’s menu features a large drinks section, with a good selection of beer, wine, margaritas and sangria, and a small-ish food selection, which is all about basics.  

Standard Southwestern options such as chips and salsa, guacamole and two different kinds of queso make up the starters section. And the meals themselves come in “lone” or “bowl” options. The “lone” offering of each item is basically a single taco, best suited for someone dining solo. And the “bowl” offering is a bowl full of meat or beans used to create several tacos — best for a group of people. We went with the bowl of Pollo Verde, which was delicious chicken with a lovely cilantro mixture on top. We also ordered the Pickled Six, a selection of six pickled veggies (including jicama and Yukon potatoes), suggested to add flavor to the tacos, and a side of Dirty Rice. 

When I said aloud, “I wonder what makes it ‘dirty’?,” my mom replied, completely deadpan, “I think it’s because they put dirt in it.” We laughed for a good three minutes (my mom’s the funniest). We found no dirt whatsoever in the dirty rice; it’s long grain rice tossed with spices and ground meat, and is wholly delicious. Our bowl came with three tortas, which was plenty for the two of us, and, along with an order of chips and guac, we had leftovers.  

I should mention here: we ordered margaritas. Yes, my mother, who consumes roughly one glass of wine a year, ordered a margarita. I was stunned. The woman never drinks! But she was off work for a week, and saucily said to my gasp of disbelief, “I’m on stay-cation.” I love my mom.

And I love her even more because she took three sips of the margarita and declared it a tad too strong for her. I couldn’t drink hers for her, as it was kind of strong, and I was getting too full. But this mother and daughter team is never one to pass up dessert, so we threw caution to the wind and ordered the Tres Leches, a moist cake drenched in three different types of milk (whole, half and half, and condensed) and topped with homemade vanilla ice cream. The Tres Leches was just perfect. Not too rich and not too sweet. 

We left Django Western Taco fully satisfied, and I’m sure we’ll be back again. Next time though, no margaritas for Mom!

1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab: A Saturday afternoon must.

I’m a bad Italian. 

Well, stereotypically speaking. You see, I have a strong aversion to wine, and since wine is such a huge part of Italian culture and I don’t like it, I’m statistically a 34-percent-bad Italian.  

A friend who is a wino (in a professional sense, as she works for a vineyard) thought my disinclination to wine — and the terrible headaches and flush I get after not even a full glass — could be attributed to my box-and-jug friends Franzia and Carlo Rossi. And because “Under twelve dollars? Yes, please!” has been my only dalliance with wine thus far, I decided to man up (headaches and all) and give good wine a go.  

My friend Kate (not the wino) and I ventured to the Gateway Quarter’s 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab one hot Saturday afternoon — perfect drinking weather — and found the place packed. Inside, the airy bar featured little four-seater tables, a row of tables against the wall, and a long, curving bar top. Outside, there were three or four tables on a teensy patio.  

After about a 10-minute wait, a table and a few spots at the bar opened up. I decided the full bar-top experience would be pretty cool, so we cozied up, were given menus and I relayed our interest in trying a flight of wine.  

Now, if I’m quite possibly a bad Italian, I’m most definitely a lightweight, and as each flight of wine consists of three “generous” half-glass pours, I knew the moon would be hitting my eye like a big pizza pie faster than you could say “amore.” I relayed this to Kate and she agreed to share a flight with me. We chose a flight of Riesling (a “terroir-expressive” sweet white wine, FYI).  

1215 offers cheese or meat plates to accompany your flight, and I couldn’t love cheese more if I were married to it, so we ordered the cheese plate suggested to pair well with Riesling. Then our server told us about a fun tasting game to play when you’re trying a new wine at the bar: They give you wine glasses marked with only numbers, and then you have to use the descriptors on the menu to see if you can correctly match each wine with the correct glass number. 

I like a challenge as much as I like cheese, so we took turns sipping each wine, trying to slosh it around and decipher the tastes. I took my time with each mouthful to notice different flavors popping in and out of prominence. Flavor tags on the menu like “apple butter,” “underripe pineapple” and “mineral overtones” helped me reference what I was tasting. Kate and I made a chart reminiscent of those ridiculous logic puzzles from elementary school — “If Jack is 12, and Sally is 15 years older, when will Rob go to jail?” — to keep track of our guesses. We made a “first impressions” chart and a “final answer” chart. (I think Kate and I would make great third-grade teachers, by the way.)   

The cheese arrived two wines into our “first impressions” round, and we lost ourselves in the goat-and-cow-milk goodness for a while. We were served generous portions of Polder Blanc (a goat’s milk gouda, which was my hands-down favorite), Belgio Mozzarella (taffy-like, but a little too bland for me), and Port Salut (semi-soft French cheese, which I enjoyed). The presentation and taste of the cheese was a nice addition to the wine tasting experience.  

We concluded our charts after the wine and cheese. Had I stuck with my “first impressions” chart, I would have won. And had Kate stuck with hers, she would have lost. Winning or losing, the Riesling flight was only $12. So reasonable! I love that affordability. Too many places on Vine Street (I’ll let you fill in the blank) tend to be slightly overpriced, supposedly because of the quality. I like quality, but I also like being pennywise, and 1215 totally fit the bill.  

We ended the afternoon with pour-over cups of coffee, which were perfectly made. I’m a barista in my other life, and I really appreciate the craftsmanship of pour-over coffee. If you’re unfamiliar, “pour-over” is essentially a brewing technique where hot water is slowly hand-poured over coffee grounds, no automatic anything. It’s a very simplistic and honest approach to coffee, and definitely keeps with the approachable, friendly vibe that 1215 gives off. 

I can’t wait to go back with more friends to try the brunch menu (bacon and mimosas), and yes, more wine.

Photos by Jesse Fox.

The Moerlein Lager House has views, booze and serious food.

I am typically not the most fancy diner, or person, really. I’m 24. I live in Clifton. People in the 18-to-25 demographic who reside in college towns are kind of relegated to “cheap but good” ethnic food or Chipotle. And then there’s also a formula I like to call “Proximity to My Lazy Butt,” which is the closer a restaurant is to my one-bedroom, even if it’s subpar, the more likely I am to eat there. But I guess I’m growing up because no longer does “easy” food appeal to me as much as it once did. I want something different. 

Armed with my desire to try something new — and residual cash from my tax refund — I made a date with my best friend, and we met at the new(ish) Moerlein Lager House at The Banks to try our luck. 

My trusty bestie, Ana, had already been seated and told the host/greeter that I would be arriving. While I was led to our table, I admired the glass-encased, gigantic beer fermentation vats that greeted me upon arrival and the openness of the entire first floor. I passed a huge staircase leading to a second floor, a glossy, wooden front bar and arrived at my table for two in a huge dining room with beautiful windows framing a pan- oramic view of the city and river. Our actual view from the table was a little lackluster, as the construction across the street from this side of The Banks has yet to be finished, but I know it will be absolutely gorgeous upon completion. 

Ana had already ordered a whisky on the rocks (my best friend goes harder than your best friend) and our server came right over after I’d been seated. He introduced himself as Ferdinand and asked if he could get me something to drink. Now, when I order a beer, I only order Moerlein OTR because I’m scared that if I order a different beer, I won’t like it, and I won’t find another beer that I do like. I get all anxious and self-conscious, ordering in a fluster, but I felt safe here. Ferdinand was very nice and well spoken with a mild temperament, so I didn’t feel any undue pressure. So I ordered an OTR. And then he told me they were out. 

I freaked out momentarily and then decided to be an adult and re- lay my beer fear to him. I told him I didn’t know much about beer, but I told him what I typically order and how I’d been scared to venture into the beer world. He listened, nodded and immediately suggested a Moerlein Barbarossa, a double dark dunkel lager. It was perfect. 

The next step was appetizers. I generally tread lightly on this ground, but I threw caution to the wind, and, after consulting with Ana, we selected something called a meat and cheese board. And, yes, it’s as delicious as it sounds. You select two or three of both different meats and cheeses from a list and they’re served to you on a fancy little wooden board. Ana and I chose smoked salmon, goetta (duh), a goat cheese fritter and bacon-chive cream cheese. Ana is lactose intolerant, but a team player, so she tried the teensiest bit of the goat cheese fritter and even she declared it a winner. 

Our entrees were probably the hardest to choose. We agonized over the impressive selection of hearty salads, classy burgers, pasta (with a note on the menu: “Just to keep the Italians quiet”), sandwiches, classic entrees and rotisserie items. I finally selected the Chicken Scaloppini, and Ana the Bone-In Pork Rack. Cue silence for the next 16 to 24 minutes because we were in absolute heaven. My chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender, the roasted asparagus was perfectly done, and the bleu cheese mashed potatoes … oh, the bleu cheese mashed potatoes were something else. Ana was equally enraptured. 

And the portion size was perfect. No semi-pretentious, half-palmful bites of this and that. No, this was food served the way my mom would make it: no-holds-barred, serious grub. I’ve been to restaurants that serve tiny, bird-like portions, and while that might appeal to a serious foodie who enjoys just enough to coat the tongue and really “appreciate the flavor” or whatever, I eat to get fed. I like having enough food to feel satisfied and the Moerlein Lager House didn’t disappoint. There was enough food on my plate for me to feel full and still have some to take home. 

Ana and I were heading into food comas when I remembered that I was eating for my job, not just for fun. So in the interest of investigative journalistic integrity, I ordered dessert. The dessert menu was short and sweet. I was torn between the Orange Panna Cotta and the simply named S’mores. We went with the S’mores because Ana loves marshmallows and I love chocolate lava cake. 

It probably would have been to our advantage to extract us from MLH with a crane, but somehow Ana and I managed to escape before fully committing to our impending food comas. It was barely 11 p.m. when I crawled into bed cradling my leftovers. Actually, I put them in the refrigerator and, it must be said, they were delicious for lunch the next day. 

I will be back at Moerlein Lager House many times this coming summer, especially as the construction along The Banks is completed and the nightlife beckons even louder than the food