When our way, way back ancestors discovered fire, the first thing they did was throw a slab of bloody meat on the mountain of heat and rejoice in the smoky goodness.
Ripping apart the charred flesh with their teeth, the world was never the same. Sure, there was light and heat, but it was the glorious flavors of protein meeting flame that turned a day of hunting and gathering into a celebration of taste and debauchery.
Not much has changed since then with regards to the magical transformation food undergoes when cooked over a flame. Wood fires today are contained in special indoor grills, but we still get a high from that woodsy aroma, the sizzle and pop of fat burning, and the primal flavors of burn and char.
Restaurants have harnessed that throwback experience and applied it to everything from steak tacos to pizza.
One would think there was nothing left to do to improve upon the taco – the perfect handheld meal, chunks of meat and veg tucked into a tortilla. Well, along comes Hass to spin a new groove into the mix: a wood-fired grill. The north side strip mall gem was an instant destination spot the minute it opened last year. Hass grew out of the popular La Favorita grocery store that had a few tables set up in the back; now, it’s all tables, no grocery. Hass fronts that taco truck feel – small menu, fresh ingredients, and passionate owners. The authentic vibe is off the scale, with ingredients such as cactus popping up in the Taco Verde veggie taco and Haracha, a milky rice drink flavored with cinnamon, a solid bev choice.
The meat that comes off the wood-fired grill is full-flavored and has those crispy bits that are the best part of flames licking the steak and chicken. The carne asada is simplicity in action: chunks of grilled steak, a few onions, a dusting of cilantro and Hass sauce. The pollo taco, featuring chicken marinated for a day, is notable in pulling off grilled chicken that is not dry or boring. There are also burritos, tortas, and quesadillas on the menu. Hass, undoubtedly, has one of the best price-to-flavor ratios in the city – with tacos starting at a buck seventy-five.
Pizza and wood-fired ovens go together like buckeyes and beer. The burnt spots on the bottom of the crust add a depth of flavor and the bubbling cheese burns the top of your mouth because you just can’t wait to eat it. The pain is worth it, especially if you’re munching on a pie from Bono Pizza. The story of Bono Pizza is like reverse nesting dolls – it started teeny tiny, working out of the Eleni Cristina bakery in the Short North on the weekends. Totally to-go, it gained a rabid following quickly for its easy command of the perfect pie. Next, Bono bounced over to a space in Grandview, still small, but with a little more elbowroom. Nowadays, you can find the restaurant in Upper Arlington with seating and all that fun stuff.
Taking the pizza peel from original owner Bill Werkes, chef Jacob Wilch has kept the tradition alive. Once flying under the radar, the darling of the local pizza cognoscenti, Bono has steadily gained visibility, especially with the recent appearance on Good Day Columbus.
The wood-fired oven is the obvious heart and hearth of the place. It’s cave-like and with the fire roaring inside, looks like a peek into Middle-earth. It also looks hot as f*ck. Pizzas hit the spot for carnivores and vegetarians alike. The Hulk wins the green ribbon with its base of pesto and fresh mozz, piled high with anything green— from spinach to basil. A personal fav is the Carbonara—I mean, who can resist caramelized bacon and the tang of Gorgonzola? Bono’s menu is fun, with a sense of humor and the wood-fired oven takes the pizza from orbit to the heavens.
Burning rubber out of North Carolina comes Firebirds, a new concept of posh casual that focuses on high-end food in a jeans-and-loafer environment. To break away from the pack, Firebirds’ appeal is the use of a wood-fired grill to give their steaks a juicy leg up on the competition. And not just steaks get the Heat Miser treatment – the menu is full of seafood, chicken, burgers, and portabellas that are also run over the flames.
Go for the prime rib, with its hand-carved juiciness and traditional horseradish sauce accompaniment, but also make sure to try the rib’s poor cousin – the French Dip sandwich. The flamed foods show up in everything from main dishes to salads, with the Colorado Chicken Salad being a heavy hitter, combining wood-grilled chicken, bleu cheese and sugary roasted pecans – a little smoke, a little funk, tarted up by some sweet.
Not just seeking to satiate the community, Firebirds also gives back – buy a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade and one dollar will be donated to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, an organization that helps raise awareness of childhood cancers. Feel full and feel good. •