Posted in: Exploring Illiniois, Exploring Ohio, Food, Hiking, Hotel, Museums & Tours, Sightseeing

Exploring Chicago

(Note: Click on an image to view full screen.)

I have always wanted to try traveling by train. Something about it sets your imagination wild. Nick and I decided to take a trip to Chicago on Amtrak this summer. We had been to Indianapolis multiple time, but Nick had never been to Chicago and it was the next closest stop. The Saturday train was scheduled to depart at 1:41 AM. Sarah and Will dropped us off and we got to Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio at 12:30AM. We checked in and Nick’s state ID came in handy. (An alternative could have been a school ID). The train’s arrival was delayed until 2:01AM, and then again to 2:16AM.

We finally boarded and were underway by 2:30AM. Our conductor assigned us our seats, which were towards the front of the train. It was a relief to be assigned rather than having to scramble and fight for a seat together. They were big seats (2x the size of an airplane) with many comfort adjustments (foot rest, leg extension and reclining). There seemed to be plenty of overhead room for carry-on items. The restrooms were in the back of each car.

Expert tip: Remember to bring your phone charger and longer cords. Each pair of seats has two 110V outlets. This is super convenient and way better than coach seats on planes.

Indianapolis was the only stop longer than 1 minute during our trip. We didn’t get off, but some smokers did to get their fix and stretch their legs.

The train started much slower than I expected (9-10 mph through city area) and gently rocked like a boat. As we got further out from the train station, the speed picked up to around 30 mph. The snoring of other sleeping passengers lingered in the air. If you really want to sleep well, ear plugs, eye masks and a pillow are mandatory equipment. It was fun to try to identify the various chemical plants as we passed by them in the city. I never realized how many existed in the Cincinnati area along the train line.

By 3:30 am Nick had calmed down and fallen asleep. He didn’t look comfortable, but even uncomfortable sleep was probably good for him.

We crossed a river near Hamilton, Ohio. It was fun to see the river from a different perspective. I can see why writers wrote on trains. It is a ‘romantic’ way to travel and the perspective change gives different insights. Something about going a little slower, the changing scenery and interacting with so many different people creates a spark of creativity.

Nick and I both managed to sleep a couple hours before it got light again around Indianapolis. The seat was rough on my knee somehow and left me feeling stiff, but rested well enough.

The track seemed bumpier after passing through Indianapolis. We moved at a quicker speed (up to 60 mph), so that likely played into it.

At 6:30AM we rope-dropped the Cafe car for breakfast. It was a reheated, unremarkable, bordering on gross breakfast sandwich that I ate completely. Despite the food, the cafe car was a different and nicer venue than our seats and we got to sit in a booth. The coffee was fine. Nick liked his bagel and hot chocolate. It was $13+$1 tip. I also grabbed a can of Diet Coke for an exorbitant $2.50. Expert tip: Bring your own food.

The bathrooms on Amtrak are kind of gross. They meet the minimum, but would get old over days of traveling. They use a vacuum assist flush and Nick said they seemed like RV toilets. I think he means that they are smaller seats. We were reminded by the conductor to make sure that we locked the door when we used it because he said, “there is always one that doesn’t on every trip.”

I am glad we chose a short trip to test things out on Amtrak. The price was certainly right since we got a Valentine’s Day BOGO, making the whole thing $84 for both of us. The fare was by far the cheapest part of the trip. With gas prices over $5/gallon, other than biking or walking, it seemed the cheapest way to go. Maybe the Megabus is competitive? I will have to check it out.

The train was 75%+ full in the coach sections. It was quite the eclectic mix of people with a large mix of all races, ages, ethnicities, and wealth.

The sleeper car people are at the back of the train and are really separated from the masses. They get the VIP treatment starting with the boarding processes, where they are taken out a separate way to the train. I would like to see what a sleeper room or roomette would feel like. Maybe next time.

It takes about 5 hours to drive from Cincinnati, OH to Chicago, IL. Flying is just 1.5 hours (+1 hour of airport security and chaos). We took from 12:30 AM to 10:00 AM terminal to terminal (9.5 hours) via train. All that to say, train travel via Amtrak is not fast. For Cincinnati users, the departure time is very inconvenient at 1:41AM.

After arriving via the Amtrak in Chicago, Nick and I had 3 hours to kill before going to the Skydeck in Willis Tower. We walked by Millennium Park (the Bean), Maggie Daly Park with an amazing “Play Garden,”and rode Centennial wheel at Navy Pier ($40).

After 2 hours of walking we were beat and Ubered back to Willis Tower from Navy Pier to catch our 1:00PM appointment.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears tower) was wonderful. My friend Bill sent us on a wild goose chase for Chicago dogs that he said were in the Willis Tower food court lobby. Not finding them and running out of time before our ticket time, Nick and I settled for a trail-mix that we had brought for emergencies. It had been awhile since breakfast, so we counted it as an emergency.

After our snack, we went to the Skydeck ($80). There was a nice Chicago fact museum and Instagram selfie studio prior to going in, where we grabbed several pictures. I got pictures with Michael Jordan and Oprah. Nick got pictures with the Obamas and Chicago food.

After capturing enough selfies, we ventured up 103 floors to the glass ledge where we “dangled” out past the building. It is a great hook and super fun. Nick, who doesn’t like heights, did great. We grabbed some pictures and some great footsies.

Having conquered the Himalayas of Chicago, we were ravenous and decided to go to Giordano’s. The restaurant was a block away, so we didn’t have far to go. We got the appetizer sampler, a Cobb salad, and a small stuffed deep dish Meat & More Meat pizza (each slice is 1,000 calories). The pizza was amazing!

Naomi was a great server and even helped us get pictures and video of our experience.

We left Giordano’s right at 3PM, which was the  first available time we could check in to the hotel, and headed to the hotel. The Central Loop Hotel was close to all the things we wanted to see and it was reasonably priced for a bedroom with two twin beds. We had no issues checking in and found ourselves exhausted in our room at 3:30 PM. We showered, changed, and promptly fell asleep with an alarm set for 7:30 PM and no specific plans for what we would do when it went off.

~Ben

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food, Sightseeing

Holtman’s Donuts: Loveland, Ohio Location

We like finding places that have unique donuts (or bagels), preferably not a chain. There is a local store, Holtman’s Donuts, that has a couple of locations around the greater Cincinnati area. The original store is located in Loveland, Ohio. My favorite part (besides the delicious donuts), is being able to watch as they make and decorate the donuts through their big viewing windows.

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They are known for their maple and bacon donut. The kids like the red velvet and cookie varieties. I like trying their crazier toppings like lemon meringue, apple, or the croissant donut.

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They even make a huge donut for celebration/birthday cakes! It is actually really tasty and you can customize your glaze, fillings, and toppings. We had it once for one of the kid’s birthday parties. Holtman’s is also part of the Butler County Donut Trail. Now that’s my kind of trail!

What’s your favorite type of donut?

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Taste of Cincinnati

This past weekend was Taste of Cincinnati. What was once a small one day event that started in 1979, has now turned into a large weekend-long celebration.

There are food booths, food trucks, and live music of all different types scattered around the area. The food costs between $4-$8 per item. There were different beer and alcohol booths, along with soda and water booths.

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We were lucky and found parking pretty close for only $5. (Each lot seemed to have their own pricing.) We stopped at a couple different food booths. My first stop was Pompillios, where I tried a chocolate and peanut butter cannoli. I love a good cannoli, and this one did not disappoint. The shell was crispy, the peanut butter filling was delicious. The only real chocolate taste came from a syrup drizzle, which was okay. I’m not sure it added a lot other than stickiness. I would totally eat one of those again.

I wanted to try a mac and cheese topped with goetta, but the line was so long, that I skipped it.

Next, I tried a beef on weck. I had tried this on our trip while in New York. It had been delicious, and I potentially had too high of expectations. The food truck at the Taste had an okay beef on weck. The bun was plain, nothing like the delicious salt and caraway seed topped bun at Adrian’s in New York. (Click here for Adrian’s post.) They seem to sell a lot more wings than sandwiches, so maybe I chose the wrong thing. (Although I am not really a wing girl.)

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My final food of the night was an arapa from Empanadas Aqui. It was delicious and so was the cilantro aoili that came with it. I would have eaten more!

This year had beautiful weather and we were able to see a friend’s band play during the event. They sounded amazing!

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The Taste of Cincinnati is a great way to find new places to eat near the city. We saw lots of new (at least to us) restaurants and food trucks. It is busy, so I would suggest going when they first open or towards the end of the night when it might be less crowded. We seemed to have gone during a peek time, but it was when the band we went to see was playing.

TIP: If you find a map, grab one! They were out most places we went.

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Ali’s Bar & Grill

We were feeling a little peckish after a round of soccer games and decided to stop by Ali’s Bar & Grill in Madeira. Their menu looked amazing and we were excited to try it out.

We tried the deep-fried cereal funnel cake. It has fruity pebbles in the batter! It sounds crazy, but it was really good. It was sweet, but not too sweet, crunchy goodness. It had a nice flavor, and I’m not even a fruity pebbles fan.

I can’t wait to go back and try some of the other things on the menu! (We have our eye on the poutine—because you can never go wrong with poutine, a burger, the Nashville chicken sandwich…maybe a pizza…Yum!)

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Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Trying The Crazy Shakes at Terry’s Grocery & Pizza/Terry’s Ice Cream Dairy Bar

We, especially Ben, used to pass by Terry’s Grocery & Pizza many times over the summer on the way to Rocky Fork Lake. They are known for their pizza. However, several years ago, they added an ice cream shop at the back of the store.

Terry's Grocery & Pizza (click to enlarge)

The Dairy Bar is located at the back of the store. There is some indoor seating, but there is also a nice covered patio in the back with tables to enjoy your treats or food at. You can order inside the store or at the patio window.

Terry's Inside (Dairy Bar) (click to enlarge)

It was a cooler, rainy day when we went. It worked in our favor because there was no line! During the summer, the lines for the crazy shakes can get long. There are so many eye-catching shakes available! They cost $10, but we shared two shakes between the four of us (so unless you are a teenaged boy, you can probably share one–especially the ones with cake or donuts on top).

Outdoor patio (click to enlarge)

We ended up getting the Dirt Road and the Over The Rainbow shakes. Both were delicious, although the Over The Rainbow was much sweeter with the strawberry shake and cake. The Dirt Road was the right level of sweetness for us adults (cookies and cream, I think), although both were delicious. Some of the shakes have non-edible decorations; the Dirt Road shake came with a toy excavator, which is now on the car’s dashboard. (The car wanted a souvenir too. 😉 )

Crazy Shakes (click to enlarge)

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Smale Pretzels

In a small building, located among a mix of houses, is a pretzel shop in Dayton, Ohio. Smales Pretzel Bakery offers a variety of pretzels, both hard and soft.

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The area in front of the counter is small, maybe enough to fit 4 or 5 people, but it’s a squeeze. There is a parking lot located behind the building, with spots for maybe 6 to 8 cars.

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You can also find these pretzels at the local Dorothy Lane grocery stores (an upscale Dayton grocery store). I will say that if you are planning to buy the frozen soft pretzels, they are about half the cost if you buy directly at the Smale store instead of the grocery store!

The boys enjoyed the hard pretzels, but my favorite was the warm soft pretzel. It is a denser dough, but nice and soft.

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food, YouTube Video Link

Milk Jar

We have been wanting to try a rolled ice cream for a while now. The timing and location just hadn’t worked out before. While we were out of town, a new place called the Milk Jar went in. The one location offered rolled ice cream!

They had a lot of different flavors. The rolled ice cream was $7. You pick a base flavor (we did Cookie Monster/cookies and cream) and then you can add unlimited toppings after it is rolled up. They start with a liquid base and pour it on the cold surface. An Oreo cookie was added and chopped up and then mixed with the freezing ice cream. The mixture was then spread thinly over the metal surface and rolled into strips.

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It was fun to watch and the ice cream was good, but at $7 for a bowl, it is a sometimes treat for us.

VIDEO: Rolled Ice Cream

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food, Hiking, Sightseeing, YouTube Video Link

Jungle Jim’s Market

Anyone who lives near Cincinnati has heard of Jungle Jim’s. It is a grocery store. Now, if you are not from the area, you may be wondering asking “Sarah, why do I care about a grocery store?” The answer is that it is not just a grocery store. It is definitely an experience. If you are passing through or new to the area, please stop to check it out. I would recommend at least an hour or two, and if possible to go on a weekday. The weekends tend to get pretty crowded.

What makes Jungle Jim’s so unique? It is crazily decorated and offers food from around the world. It is home to the famous port-a-potty restrooms (Don’t worry, it’s just the door. The bathrooms are actually big and clean. (YouTube Video.).

There are two locations: Eastgate and Fairfield (both in Ohio). Both locations have the port-a-potty- bathrooms and the Jungle Jim’s movie that show how the store began (NOTE: as of February 2022, the Eastgate location still had the movie playing, but the Fairfield location had the movie room closed). Both locations offer an amazing variety of foods to discover. (Ben loves the winesap apples Jungle Jim’s carries. It is by far his favorite apple. The kids love finding new “weird” snacks to try.) However, each one is decorated differently (mostly because these are one-of-a-kind items). My personal favorite is the original location at Fairfield. Why? I think it has more things to see and to explore.

Eastgate has similar offerings of the Big Cheese, international food items, a big fish counter, and a large candy section. There are some larger decorations at the Eastgate location including an old beehive amusement park ride and a small Airstream RV. If we are just going to go for a quick grocery run, we might go to Eastgate.

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Fairfield has a monorail system installed along the side and front of the store. The cars are stationed amid a large snake-guarded building (located on the right side of the building when facing the front). Inside the store, you will find a large ship in the seafood department, a singing Elvis bear in the candy area, and a Robin Hood treasure-filled forest scene in the English food section where I like to pick up tea and Hobnob’s. They offer cooking classes and different tasting events. There is also a pressed penny machine there.

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Tours are also available for a fee and are by appointment only. We have not done one yet, but it does look fun! There is also a weekly podcast that broadcasts on Wednesdays.

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NOTE: Although both locations have very large parking lots, there is not really designated RV parking.

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Swensons Drive-In

My cousin Claire asked us to stop by this restaurant in Anderson and give them a try. Swensons is an old-fashioned drive in (kind of like Sonic or A&W). There is not an eat-in area. You find your perfect parking spot, making sure the front of your car is facing the building. This is important, because you turn on your headlights to signal to a carhop that you are ready to order. After ordering, turn your lights off. You can turn them back on to signal them to come get your tray.

We tried a few different things from the menu: coleslaw, double cheeseburger, hamburger (for the kid who won’t eat cheese), fried Bologna sandwich, fried zucchini, potato tweezers. For drinks we tried a chocolate phosphate (old fashioned soda fountain drink), a mint whip, and a chocolate peanut butter milkshake. The food was delivered in a wax paper type of individual bags.

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I swore after grade school that I would not eat bologna again. However, this sandwich was surprisingly tasty, especially with the grille onions. It seemed to be the crowd favorite. The mint whip was light and refreshing. The shake was good, but you couldn’t really taste the peanut butter. The fried zucchini was interesting to try, but it is a lightly flavored vegetable to start with, so when it was fried you lost a lot of the zucchini flavor. I would personally rather have fried pickles (although both will burn your mouth like molten lava if you don’t let them cool down first before eating). The burger was good, but you had to pay for extra toppings (including lettuce, tomato, cheese).

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The xango is a piece of cheesecake fried in a tortilla. It was different. I think I prefer my cheesecake cold, not hot.

Carhop running between cars

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food, Sightseeing, YouTube Video Link

Golden Lamb and Black Horse Tavern

After visiting the Harmon Museum, we walked across the street to the Golden Lamb to have lunch. Ben and I had both been there pre-kids. It is a really neat old hotel. The attached restaurant had undergone a renovation since we had last been there, so we decided to try the Black Horse Tavern. The restaurant had a nice fireplace, although we didn’t get to sit near it.

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They had the Christmas decorations up still (1/8/22), and it was fun seeing all the little sheep and lamb ornaments on the trees. We decided to try a few different items and share amongst ourselves. We ordered the Sauerkraut Balls, Bacon Jelly and Biscuits, Golden Lamb Farms Platter, Cheese Curds, and a bowl of the Shaker Chicken & Spaetzle soup.

It’s hard to go wrong with cheese curds and there are very few soups that Will doesn’t like. We liked the pickles from the platter and the sauerkraut balls were surprisingly delicious.

VIDEO: Quick Walk Through of the Black Horse Tavern/Golden Lamb

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Terry’s Grocery & Pizza (click to enlarge)
Terry’s Inside (Dairy Bar) (click to enlarge)
Outdoor patio (click to enlarge)
Crazy Shakes (click to enlarge)
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