The counter at the Pickled Pig.
One of the best places to go on a Saturday or Sunday morning and linger was the counter at Take the Cake in Northside. Not only because they had awesome food, but because you could sit at the counter, have a great cup of coffee and banter with the owner Doug Faulkner as he made your delicious food. You could catch up on the news, talk about cooking technique and local gossip and enjoy the great interaction. It worked if you were flying solo or meeting friends for a gnosh. It was a great outpost for people watching the broad spectrum of Northside natives. They even lent their counter on some weekends to a then unknown popup pizza place called A Tavola, that’s now one of the most successful anchors in Over-the-Rhine. Sadly, Take the Cake has been closed now for nearly a decade, and there are few counters that measure up.
The counter at Take the Cake ca. 2008
In Cincinnati we have hundreds of chain chili parlors that have counters where you can get a threeway and banter with the salty waitresses or macho-Greek coney makers behind the counter. There are the Waffle Houses where you can dig into your scattered, smothered and covered hash browns at any hour of the day.
But what makes a good counter? First, there has to be great food – specials but also standards that you can count on. It has to have a great view of the front of the restaurant for people watching and judging. The folks behind the counter have to be interactive and have a certain degree of saltiness or at least opinion. It has to be a place where you can linger and aren’t rushed off for the next customer. And there has to be continuity. They have to remember you from the last time and maybe even continue the conversation or debate you started.
Looking into the fray from the counter at Take the Cake ca. 2008.
Last weekend I asked myself that question. Do I have a counter? I haven’t consciously been looking for a new counter, but I realized that I hadn’t really found a replacement. And I realized that was a pretty big hole in my life.
For me there had temporarily been the counter at the Athenian Greek Deli in Sharonville, when I worked near there. But although it has great gyros and food, it’s so small and busy that there’s really no opp to banter with the folks behind the counter. I’ve seen groups of older men at the counter at the Frisch’s Mainliner in Mariemont giving heck to the waitress, who seems to enjoy the banter, or at least the tips generated from her playing the part. But there had been no counter to compare to Take the Cake.
That’s until I stopped by the counter at the Pickled Pig in east Walnut Hills last weekend. I always know I’m in for a great meal. And I thought I’d treat myself to a fantastic lunch en route to some sleuthing on a new writing project. Owner Gary Leybman, is a master of flavor. I’ve had several of their sandwiches, but I think their bakla jan – a smoky eggplant and tomato salsa – is one of the best sides in Cincinnati. It can be a meat topper, a veggie chili, or a condiment. I usually come out with a to-go tub of it for later.
After being greeted by Gary, I was waiting on my cod cake and bakla jan, and in walks none other than local sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, whose studio is just two blocks east at the Essex Studios. I am a huge fan of his work, and for me it was like August Rodin or Clement Barnhorn or Hiram Powers had just walked into the place. I was giddy with fan glee and quickly snapped a picture of him when he and his lunch companion sat at the counter opposite me.
I have been to his studio and seen some of his commissions in progress. Tom is known for his awesome work around town – particularly the Pete Rose sliding into home statue and other famous Reds at the Ballpark. He’s crafted the D’Artnagan statue at Xavier University, the massive Hug-Me-Jesus statue at Solid Rock Church in Monroe, which replaced the Touchdown Jesus that was struck by lighting and burned. He’s now working on a statue of local civil rights pioneer, Marian Spencer, which will stand at the Smale Riverfront Park. Even cooler is that he is also concepting the frieze of local macabre writer Lafcadio Hearn that is planned to be placed at the Main Public Library, where his books and local newspaper articles are stored in the Rare Books Department.
With a mouth full of cod cake, I yelled across the counter to him and asked if he was Tom Tsuchiya, famous local sculptor. He smiled and admitted it was so and then I gushed about his work and how happy I was the Japan America society had chosen him for the Lafcadio Hearn sculpture. We talked about the weirdness that is Lafcadio, Cincinnati chili, and other Cincinnati weird-doms. He dropped me his business card and I walked out feeling like I had just eaten lunch with a rock star. And I remember Gary’s words: “We run a hip, hip place.”
So maybe I do have a counter after all.