When I first started attending the annual Ohio Linuxfest many years ago, I found myself drawn, almost lemming-like, to the Food Court on the first floor of the Columbus Convention Center during our hour long lunch break during the day long event. The Food Court contained the same list of tired old classics that we, as Americans, have come to expect in our mega-malls and airports across the country. Let's see, there is the kind-of-Japanese place, the two and three way combo plates at the Americanized Chinese place with nary a wok in sight, the submarine sandwich place, and the ever ubiquitous Italian place that offers pizza by the slice. The first several years, I followed suit and joined my fellow convention-goers, but by about the third year I attended, I finally figured out that something better was just beyond the doors to the outside world.
I speak, of course, of the North Market located literally one block away from the north side of the Convention Center. Located at 59 Spruce Street, Columbus, Ohio 43215, the administrative offices can be reached at 614-463-9664 or you can visit them at their website. Even though today was a bit foggy and rainy, I braved the moisture-laden air to walk over for my lunch. Here was a shot of the front of the market:
Having lived in both Cleveland and Columbus and shopped at both the West Side Market and the North Market, I can tell you that although they both have an open-air market feel to them, the biggest difference between the two markets is in crowd control. The West Side Market can often be intimidatingly crowded and unpleasant to navigate through. The North Market, while it can be busy, never seems to be so bad that you feel like you are about to be manhandled in the middle of a mosh pit at a Phish concert. Besides the stalls where you can pretty much buy any type of fresh produce you could imagine, there were plenty of stalls where prepared foods were being served. Additionally, there were a number of tables on the second floor where you could take your lunch, sit down and enjoy yourself, if even for a few minutes.
After perusing my options, I decided on Vietnamese food for lunch, specifically at Lae Viet:
Most food vendors have hanging menus and Lae Viet was no different:
Seeing that banh mi sandwiches were available, I decided to go with a sandwich, a summer roll, and a bottle of water. I placed my order (a #2 and a #6), paid for my lunch (which, incidentally only came to $7), and climbed the stairs to the second floor eating area to address my ravishing appetite. Here was a shot of my lunch, with some spicy Sriracha which I added at the vendor's counter before leaving:
First up was the Goi Cuon, or summer roll, with a dipping sauce:
This was very good, however, the rice paper used to encase the filling was on the verge of breaking apart. My guess would be that they had rolled a number of these before the lunch rush and then let them sit too long. That being said, the filling was very nice, the large shrimp were fresh and not rubbery, and the dipping sauce was a nice combination of sesame, ginger, and hoisin sauce. This wasn't the best version of this dish I've ever had, but it was decent enough.
After finishing my summer roll, I unwrapped my banh mi sandwich, specifically, a Banh Mi Thit:
Here was a shot of the inside of my sandwich:
Layers of fresh vegetables and cilantro as well as ham, chicken, and liver pate were served on a French roll that had been toasted nicely in a sandwich press before being slathered with a layer of mayonnaise. The only thing I did to dress this sandwich up was add a thin line of the Sriracha chili-garlic sauce before I closed it up and took a bite. I have to say, for being only $4, this was an amazing sandwich. The bread was soft and crunchy at the same time, the fillings were tasty and fresh, and the small amount of Sriracha I had added gave the sandwich just the perfect amount of zing. I was originally worried that the liver pate might be too overpowering, but after just a few bites, I realized that like every other flavor in this sandwich, it was harmoniously balanced. It was like listening to a symphony play and being able to listen to the music as a whole and yet also being able to just focus on one instrument, picking out the individual harmony that a single component added to the whole. I finished the sandwich with a smile on my face.
I have to admit, I had an ulterior motive for picking the North Market today for lunch. The other reason I knew I would be going to the North Market was that I simply had to stop by Jenis Ice Cream shop (which was fortuitously located just to the right of Lae Viet). I have had their ice cream on numerous occasions and am absolutely in love with it. Having finished my sandwich, I returned to the first floor and eagerly walked over to Jenis stand. Here was a shot of the chalk board with the available ice cream flavors:
What I love about Jenis ice cream is both the freshness of the product and the originality of the flavors. Flavors are either subtle or bold, sometimes both. While I do think there are flavors that small children would find appealing, I think their ice cream is targeted to people who want all five flavor sensations hit with every spoonful. You can get pre-built ice cream concoctions (like a sundae), or you can mix and match the flavors that sound good to you.
Here were a couple of shots of some of the ice creams in the cases:
After looking over my options, I decided to get a trio of scoops for $4.25 in a bowl. My first choice was an intriguing combination of sweet corn and blackberry:
I figured that this would be my "subtle" flavor. For my second and third choices, I decided to amp it up a bit and choose bolder flavors.
I choose the Thai Chili because I had heard good things about it and I knew I would enjoy Jenis's take on Thai flavors. The Dark Chocolate I choose because I am a true chocoholic at heart and anything claiming to contain that much cocoa powder MUST be a good thing. I paid for my trio at the cash register and picked up my post-sandwich treat:
Garnished with a small wedge of fresh waffle cone, I took this outside and found a picnic bench where I could savor every bite. I started with the sweet corn and blackberry. Although there were no discernible chunks of corn, the sweet corn flavor was definitely present and balanced so well with the slightly acidic fruit of the blackberries. I was right to start with this flavor as this experience was all about subtlety. Next up, I started in on the Thai chili ice cream. This was a blend of local Krema natural peanut butter, coconut milk, toasted shredded coconut, and of course, Thai chilies. The shredded coconut gave the ice cream a nice textural balance, but the real winner was the Thai chili heat. It was gentle and tickled the back of my throat. While this was a bolder flavor than the first flavor, the subtlety of the Thai chili was also nicely balanced.
Finally, I got to the Dark Chocolate ice cream. While I was pleased with how good the Sweet Corn and Blackberry and the Thai Chili ice creams tasted, I was blown away with the Dark Chocolate. After just a single bite of the Dark Chocolate, I actually found myself involuntarily uttering the phrase, "Holy Shit!" softly under my breath. At the same time creamy and smooth, there was so much cocoa powder in this ice cream that it also had just the tiniest bit of mouth feel, or grit if you will, that only made the ice cream even more flavorful. The intensity of the chocolate flavor mixed with the mild bitterness that only dark chocolate can bring to the table was heavenly. As far as I am concerned, this was the best chocolate ice cream I have ever eaten. If you are a chocoholic, I suggest you drive yourself as quickly as possible to a Jenis Ice Cream outlet and try it for yourself.
Not for nothing, the waffle cone triangle served as a nice palate cleanser between flavors. Slightly sweetened with just a touch of vanilla flavoring, it served as a nice buffer to allow me to segregate the flavors in my mouth. Now mentally and physically sated, I threw away my waxed cardboard cup and spoon, picked up my waterproof notebook and headed back to the conference for another four hours of sessions on all topics Linux and open source.
I can't recommend enough that you check out the North Market in Columbus if you happen to be fortunate enough to live there or find yourself visiting. The entire place is a vibrant example of a farmer's market, the prepared food vendors are diverse and delicious, and a stop at Jenis Ice Cream is absolutely mandatory. With so much from which to choose, there should be no excuse to leave with unhappy taste buds.