I decided to road trip with some friends, cramming as much of Ohio as possible into three days. Mostly, that came in the way of food. We visited seven cities in three days, spanning 19 hours in the car and 1,110 miles. And we learned that Ohio is a state rich with Midwestern flavor. And it tastes delicious.
First stop, Cincinnati. With art deco and Italianate architecture, the city is more than just its chili tradition, but we had to stop at Skyline Chili (several locations, skylinechili.com), the famous and unglamorous chain.
The 5-Way ($5.89) — chili, onions and beans on a mountain of spaghetti topped with a mop of shredded cheddar — initially seemed watery and bland. But the sweet cinnamon taste grew on me.
We followed up on a local’s assurance that the best meal would be found at Camp Washington Chili (3005 Colerain Av., 1-513-541-0061; campwashingtonchili.com), whose tiled floors and plastic chairs made clear it holds dear to the simple motif of its 1940 founding. We hit the road, our stomachs stuffed with another 5-Way helping even though we took a pass on the heaping sides of cheese favored by Cincinnatians at the next table.
Yes, we had eaten the exact same meal in less than 12 hours.
Next on the agenda was to head up Interstate 77 to Dayton, which provided a brief stop for some flying history in the form of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (1100 Spaatz St.; 1-937-255-3286; www.national museum.af.mil). Inside, a volunteer said it takes three days to see all the planes and exhibits. We fit in two hours.
Columbus, where we arrived midafternoon, is a vibrant college town where trendy bars and restaurants line the streets. We spent the most time there, a whopping 18 hours.
The Short North Tavern (674 N. High St.; 1-614-221-2432), a neighborhood favorite, tantalized us with spicy hot wings and tangy pulled pork served on checkered tablecloths. We chased that with craft brews nearby at Bodega (1044 N. High St.; 1-614-299-9399; columbusbodega.com), sampling from an eclectic collection and mingling with an artsy crowd with a respectable football knowledge.
The next morning we started out on I-75, but our visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2121 George Halas Drive NW., Canton; 1-330-456-8207; profootballhof.com) was delayed after we missed an exit on I-71 and stumbled upon Grandpa’s Cheesebarn in Ashland (668 U.S. Hwy. 250; 1-800-745-7091; grandpascheesebarn.com).
Grandpa’s, which opened in 1978 as a small cheese house, is not a tourist trap selling candles and trinkets. Upstairs are 150 cheeses, 50 smoked meats and scores of jams and sauces, many priced at less than $5 and available to sample. We tried most items, which allowed us to skip a sit-down lunch and return to the road. Grandpa, 83, soft-spoken and white-haired, is Dick Baum, who works the register. How much cheese does he sell in a week? “I never counted that.” A grin grew across his face. “Probably a ton.”
The night was spent in sleepy Kent along the Cuyahoga River. I loved Ray’s Place (135 Franklin Av.; 1-330-673-2233; www.raysplacekent.com), a storefront neighborhood bar since 1937 with worn, wooden booths and local beer and a slew of homemade offerings, such as a juicy burger stuffed with mushrooms ($7.50) and meatloaf ($7.95) that offered our palates a break from chili.
We were short on reasons to visit Akron — the Rubber City peaked long ago — but our trip coincided with the National Hamburger Festival (www.hamburgerfestival.com). Mark your calendar for August. Deep-fried cheeseburgers and chocolate-covered buckeyes (items for under $6) sounded like good reasons to pull off the highway for a few hours. They tasted great too.
Returning to I-77, we passed on through Cleveland, where the emerging food scene was way too much for us to crack on this trip. Besides, we were on a mission to see baseball, and the Toledo Mud Hens were the only Ohio team — minor or major league — playing on that Sunday (Fifth Third Field, 406 Washington St.).
Warmed by hot dogs and 16-ounce souvenir cups, we cheered from the 10th row.
Dinner was across the street at Tony Packo’s (7 S. Superior St.; 1-419-246-1111; www.tonypacko.com), a local chain memorialized in the 1970s, when it was mentioned on the “M*A*S*H” TV series.
That fact came from the menu, as did a 14-inch hot dog called the MOAD (Mother of All Dogs) ($9.99). My friend figured it was the perfect meal before hitting the road for the drive home.