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Worth the Drive: Athens

We head to Athens to sample a promotional campaign that encourages local eating

By
From the Fall 2013 edition

The 30 Mile Meal program and I have something in common: We both got our start in Athens, where I left part of my heart and all of my first car.

A marketing program that encourages restaurants and consumers to utilize products grown or created within 30 miles of a central hub, the 30 Mile Meal is celebrating four years showcasing uber-local foods in four regions, including Athens, Youngstown, Licking County and Huntington, West Virginia.

In the name of journalism—and hunger—I took a weekend trip to my alma mater to uncover 30 great bites and drinks within the 30-mile parameter.

Jill Moorhead blogs about the culinary adventures of traveling the world at itinerantfoodies.com

To Market, to Market

The jewel in the crown of Athens’ local food system, the Athens Farmers Market, held twice a week in a parking lot off State Street on the east side of town, is in its 41st year and showcases selections from up to 95 vendors. The market is open Saturdays year-round and Wednesdays from April through December. On both days, hours are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.—allowing Athens locavores to sleep a few extra hours before racing for those heirloom tomatoes. Here are a few items not to miss.

1. Athens’ Own Mild Salami

Constantine Faller reaches for his Pennsylvania roots with his Athens’ Own Beef Bolognas. These sweetened salamis are made with beef from Redbird Ranch and the local beef auction house.

2. Starline Organics Honey Puffed Spelt

The folks at Starline Organics grow spelt and send it to Stutzman Farms in Millersburg to be puffed and sweetened with honey. The result? A highly addictive nutty, cereal-like snack.

3. Pawpaw Sweet Potato Candy

This naturally sweetened and fudge-like swirl of candy made by the folks who run the Ali Baba’s mobile food truck utilizes the pawpaw, Ohio’s own tropical fruit foraged in the Appalachian foothills.

4. Bangbouh Bakery Spelt Cranberry Pretzel

Robert Bangert and wife Mageda Merbouh waited two years to bring these Shagbark spelt-laden pretzels to the market. Hearty, healthy and with a sweet taste from the cranberries, these pretzels contain less gluten than most.

5. Integration Acres Smoky Goat Cheese

Locally foraged spicebush berries meet pure and creamy smoked goat cheese. (This cheese is usually found atop Till’s Lamb Burger.)

6. Integration Acres Pawpaw Spiceberry Jam

With a distinct pawpaw taste, this smooth jam can be spread on a cracker. Owner Chris Chmiel—founder of the Pawpaw Festival—purchases his foragable ingredients from neighbors, his way to support Appalachian economic development.

7. Flour Power Cupcakes

Using Snowville Creamery milk and local eggs, when available, this bakery perched under the pink tent at the market can cure any sweet tooth. Try gooey espresso-laden chocolate brownies or their signature Irish car bomb cupcake.

At the Farmacy

With a full-service deli and bulk spice wall, organic grocery the Farmacy is the in-town go-to for many of the products you’ll find at the Athens Farmers Market—and at least one you won’t.

8. Snowville Creamery Gingamon Yogurt

Warren and Victoria Taylor went through more than 100 yogurt test batches to find the perfect combination of ginger and cinnamon flavors.

Eating Uptown

Many of Athens’ best eats are within a three or four blocks of one another. This area, known as uptown, is where Ohio University’s students head to celebrate the end of a semester or the end of a Tuesday. Pro tip: Higher-priced bars and restaurants equate to fewer students.

Salsas & Deluxe at Casa Nueva

With more than nine house-made salsas available and an entire menu section dedicated to local producers, Athens’ first worker-owned restaurant—a Mexican mainstay filled with townies and students alike—knows how to add local flavor to just about anything.

9. First up, their most popular, the Black Bean Salsa. This thick and garlicky condiment has just enough pickled jalapeno to provide a kick.

10. Another Casa classic is the Chile Verde Salsa. Refreshing in the front (with the help of parsley and cilantro) and with a kick at the end, this creamy—and spicy—salsa is complex.

11. Looking for something to accompany your salsas? Order the Hills Deluxe ($6). A house-made flour tortilla with black beans, jasmine rice, lettuce and two salsas of your choice.

12. Red Bean Soup at Sol

Made with Shagbark’s adzuki beans, smoky pork and fresh tomatoes, and topped with sour cream, this soup has the texture of chili with a Cuban twist. The owners of this Cuban fusion and brunch hotspot (due, in part, to its $6 bottomless mimosa special on Saturdays) grow their own produce on 20 acres outside of Athens.

(Pro tip: Try their to-die-for soft, white and lightly toasted Cuban bread.)

13. The Tempest at O’Betty’s

Made with Cleveland’s Five Star all-beef hot dogs and topped with chopped jalapenos and hot salsa from Casa Nueva, this fiery dog cools down with sour cream and cheddar. This hot dog joint with a museum dedicated to the American wiener serves up hot franks with a side of philosophy. (French fries on the floor? The staff blames atrophy.)

14. Seinfeld’s Secret at Bagel Street Deli

Covered in chalk and adorned with foil sculptures, the brick walls inside Bagel Street Deli are part of an ongoing interactive art installation.

The walls account for only half of Bagel Street’s fame. The rest? Their steamed bagel sandwiches wrapped in foil. The steaming provides perfectly melted cheddar on this bacon, roast beef, tomato and mayo sandwich. For a local touch, choose the birdseed bagel from Crumbs Bakery in Athens.

15. Crepes at Zoe

Feeling fancy? Head to Zoe on East State Street for a vegetarian dish any carnivore would love. Zoe’s crepes are made with Golden Acres eggs and stuffed with an array of hearty vegetables including bitter broccoli rabe, meaty portobello mushrooms and rich artichokes. Served with basmati rice and sweet-and-spicy spicebush carrots, no two bites are the same in this memorable dish.

16. Vegan Asian Spiced Kabob

With its intricate Middle Eastern decor, Restaurant Salaam feels very far from Athens. The food, however, comes from nearby. For vegan goodness with the texture of pork belly, try the Vegan Asian Spiced Kabob, made with Chakay, a locally made potato-based meat replacement. (Rich and savory, it tastes better than it sounds.)

17. Salaam Salad at Restaurant Salaam

Another must-try is the Salaam Salad. A traditional greens salad topped with carrots, red peppers, microgreens and Integration Acres feta cheese. Add the house-made pomegranate vinaigrette and enjoy the balance of sweet and salty.

18. Burrito from Burrito Buggy

Long before food trucks became the norm, Burrito Buggy served up large burritos wrapped in flour tortillas and stuffed with just about anything you could imagine, all from its seemingly permanent parking space on East Union Street. Made by real hippies, a Burrito Buggy burrito, with its well-wrapped combination of fresh veggies and just-the-right-amount-of-grease meats, is an essential accompaniment for late imbibing, especially given its proximity to Court Street’s bars.

Where To Drink

What’s a college town without meetings over coffee, tea, beer or cocktails? Athens provides specialties in all categories, each with a local slant.

19. Herbal Sage Local Wildberry Harvest Tea

Maureen Burns-Hooker planted 300 new elderberry plants this year to accommodate this flu-fighting tea, which can be served hot or cold. It’s available at Fluff Bakery or the Farmacy.

20. Silver Bridge Coffee

Roasted in Gallipolis (just a smidge beyond the 30-mile goal), Silver Bridge coffee pops up all over Athens. Lorraine Walker purchases fair-trade beans, many from women growers, and donates a portion of sales to local women’s shelters. Grab a cup at Fluff Bakery.

21. Dizzy Gimlet at Casa Cantina

Casa Cantina, a bar-slash-music-venue-slash-waiting-room provides distractions for those anticipating a table at its sister restaurant, Casa Nueva.

Start things off with a Dizzy Gimlet, featuring Dancing Tree Gin (handcrafted in nearby Shade from wild spicebush berries), house-made simple syrup, lime juice and a dash of bubbly. Refreshing with just a hint of gin, this could easily make you forget about dinner for a minute or six.

22. Appalachian Nijinsky at Casa Cantina

Want to try all of the Dancing Tree offerings? Move on to the Appalachian Nijinsky, Casa’s take on the White Russian. Dancing Tree Vodka (distilled with non-GMO Ohio corn) and their coffee liqueur (boasting local honey and locally roasted coffee) come together with Snowville heavy cream for a decadent drink.

Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery

With two connecting bars on Union Street and a taproom off Stimson Avenue, Jackie O’s is the official go-to for Athens beer geeks. The brewery offers an ever-changing array of microbrews. Here’s what to sample:

23. One of the brewery’s signature beers (and the first to be canned), Firefly Amber Ale is easy to drink—possibly too easy—with a little bitterness from its Cascade hops.

24. Next, sample Chomolungma. This nut brown ale (named after what Tibetan natives call Mount Everest) showcases a roasted flavor with hints of chocolate.

25. Like hops? Try the Mystic Mama IPA. Expect orange, grapefruit and pine overtones with a pleasant malt balance.

26. The Pesto

If cheese is your thing, check out The Pesto. Rich and thick kale-based pesto is topped with caramelized onions and white cheddar from Gallipolis-based Laurel Valley Creamery in an open-faced sandwich, served aside two bright slices of orange.

27. BBQ Tempeh

Eschew animal products of all types? Go for the BBQ Tempeh, slathered with house-made barbecue sauce and served on a bun with a generous portion of sauerkraut and fresh sprouts. Vegans rejoice!

Rickshaw Thai

A weekend pop-up run by the team from Fluff Bakery in the Eclipse Company Town, a renovated mining town just north of Athens proper, Rickshaw Thai is worth the trip for attentive service, cozy atmosphere and passion-fueled food. Make reservations early; the tiny restaurant fills up quickly.

28. Laab

First up, Laab. Local ground beef, lime, fish sauce, ground chilis, sugar and mint mingle in cabbage wraps made crunchy with house-made khao khua (toasted sweet rice) in this delightful starter.

29. Green Banana Shrimp Curry

For the main, try the Green Banana Shrimp Curry spiked with lots of cardamom and cumin. Tender shrimp, coconut milk, green beans, sweet potato and cilantro come together well in this filling dish.

30. Chicken Chupacabra at Avalanche Pizza

With more than 54 toppings—including sausage from a local farm, kimchi and good ol’ fashioned broccoli—Avalanche Pizza has a pizza for any palate. The menu, with references to Ted Nugent, Godzilla and Pulp Fiction, could warrant a place on the syllabus in a sociology course at Ohio University. Stick with one of the signatures (the Chicken Chupacabra comes with roasted chicken, crispy bacon and artichoke hearts) or, if you can’t decide, they offer reduced pricing for three.

Photos by Ryan M.L. Young