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Rooted Juicery & Kitchen / 3010 Madison Rd. (Oakley) -- Image: Leah Zipperstein / Cincinnati Refined

The Top 16 Hidden Gem Restaurants of 2015

It's back! Our annual "Where do you go?" check-in with beloved staff & trusted advisors has rolled its way through an entire calendar year. And what'd'ya know... we've got a whole new batch of newly discovered destinations, oft-forgotten wonders, and back-pocket faves to share. Let's get to it.

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1) Packhouse Meats
1004 Monmouth St. (Newport, Kentucky)

Chalkboard walls you can draw on? Check.
Seat yourself? Check.
Oodles of craft beer on tap? Check.
Progressive no-tipping policy? Check.
Oh, and the best meatballs I've ever eaten, in some of the most amazing sauces? Cheeeeck!

Why would you not love this place? Stumbled upon it this summer, and now it is a go-to joint for me. I understand they have veggie options too, but... you have to click on an image of a cow to see the menu on their website. In other words: carnivores, rejoice!

2) Kitchen 452
2714 Woodburn Ave. (Walnut Hills)

At some point in the last year, in the middle of a very busy day in which I had not yet eaten a crumb, I stumbled sideways into this place. And their chicken salad sandwich saved my life. True story. One of the best-kept, awesome-lunch secrets in town. Fresh ingredients, comfy decor, and super nice staff. A "must visit!"

3) The Kitchen Factory
1609 Chase Ave. (Northside)

This place offers the best pizza in a zip code starting with 452-. At least, in my stomach's humble opinion they do. (Plus: I had them cater my rehearsal dinner, so you know I trust the goods.) Owner Melissa Howard has been cooking for decades, and it shows in the quality of the grub. They offer more than slices -- you can get vegan mac & cheese, kale salad, veggie burgers, and other vegetarian and vegan options galore! Plus, they have a late-night window where you can satisfy all your 2am "hangry" needs.

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4) Uncle Yip's
10736 Reading Rd (Evendale)

I'm not willing to name my favorite dim sum place. So you get my second. -- Uncle Yip's.

5) Asiana
3922 Edwards Rd. (Hyde Park)

They always get your order right, and it is always tasty. Sometimes it's easier to carry out because [the restaurant] is so small.

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6) Cincy by the Slice
1207 Main Street, Cincinnati, OH (Over-the-Rhine)

I know, it's bizarre that a restaurant in Over-the-Rhine could be considered a "hidden gem." Yet I'm continually surprised by how few people count Cincy by the Slice among the best pizza places in town. My friends, it most certainly is. And I'll do you one more - it's not just one of the best, it's the best. Situated on Main Street between two far-more-hyped pizza joints (Goodfellas and Lucy Blue's), Cincy by the Slice features a dimly lit interior with plain decorations. But the pizza, oh my, that pizza.

Just like the decor, it won't impress you at first. Looks like some run-of-the-mill pie, really. Simple ingredients. Simple crust. It's flat too, in case you were wondering. But then you taste it and somehow those ingredients -- perfectly proportioned and finely seasoned -- combine to deliver the very essence of pizza in your mouth. Best enjoyed with a light beer aperitif (or six).

7) The President's Room
812 Race Street (Downtown)

I was told about The Presidents Room, located inside The Phoenix, about two weeks ago when a friend recommended I try the happy hour cheeseburger. Now, being a vegetarian, I couldn't taste it myself. But luckily I have a lady friend who 1) has an irrational obsession with cheeseburgers and 2) willingly indulges my vicarious desires. The interior of The Presidents Room is breathtakingly beautiful: hints of Tudor style adorned with modern flourishes. Good draught beer selection, good wine list, great service.

And the burger? I would let my date speak about it for herself but its bun, cheese, pickles, sauerkraut, and patty (nay, TWO patties) put her in a bug-eyed cheeseburger delirium that apparently rendered all speech meaningless. Lesson learned, I guess. Never take a date to get the cheeseburger at The Presidents Room: you'll end up as the third wheel.

8) Green Dog Cafe
3543 Columbia Parkway (Columbia Tusculum)

* NOTE: Okay, so this one's not necessarily a true "hidden gem." But just on the off-chance some folks still haven't heard the gospel of Green Dog... Here goes.

There was a time when, after a stiff night of drinking, I'd wake up pining for a Quarter Pounder from McDonalds. Thankfully, that's no longer the case. Nowadays, the first thing I do after waking up most Sunday mornings is head straight for Green Dog Cafe. Located in Columbia-Tusculum, Green Dog is clean, hip, and friendly, with both indoor and outdoor seating. They put just enough greenery in their food to make you think you're eating healthy, so you can thank them for that.

But the best thing Green Dog has going for it is its veggie burger -- made in-house and sandwiched between a poppy seed bun, baby arugula, caramelized onions, cheddar, and a tomato jam that's mind-bogglingly delicious. Get it with a side of fries (which feeds two), request four extra portions of the curry sauce (they might look at you strangely; don't be deterred) and you'll find yourself in food paradise... whether you're hung-over or not.

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9) Red Rose
5919 Hamilton Ave (College Hill)

Hidden in the little storefront strip of College Hill, this restaurant serves great pizzas that can span from 8 to 28 inches wide. (Yes, you read that right. 28 whole inches of pizza.)

10) Thai Express
213 W. McMillan (Clifton)

This is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall, take-out Thai restaurant in Clifton. It's quick, cheap, and delicious. Order anything. You won't be disappointed.

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11) Henke Winery
3077 Harrison Ave. (Cheviot)

Gourmet food and award-winning wine? You must be talking about the Eastside. Nah, I'm touting the Westside on this one -- Westwood/ Cheviot to be exact. It's not the Precinct; it's not Boca; and it's not trying to be. A family-focused urban winery with a knack for making you feel at home (while sipping wine and eating fried cheese, of course).

What's an "urban winery?" Simply put, the grapes come from other places, but the wine is made on site. Henke gets grapes from California, Indiana, New York, Northern Ohio, and locally from a vineyard just 30 miles away. The winery has won too many awards to write them down here. Take a look. Make a date.

12) Bouchard's Anything Pastable
1801 Race Street (Over-the-Rhine)

If you're perusing Findlay Market, you should eat at Bouchard's. If you are 20 miles away from Findlay Market, you should still eat at Bouchard's. They make flatbreads and pasta dishes with a ferocious generosity. Whether you ask for two toppings or twelve, the price is the same. So, load 'em up with your choice of chicken or pepperoni, fresh basil, roasted red peppers, spinach, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, parmesan, or feta cheeses. As you wrap up your last bite of Cincinnati Italiana, chase it down with fresh German chocolate or carrot cake, or maybe some white chocolate bread pudding. Your diet will just have to wait. (And that's a good thing.)

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13) Rooted Juicery & Kitchen
3010 Madison Rd. (Oakley)

"You like-a-da juice? The juice is good?" Yes, the juice is really good, but what separates Rooted from any other juice bar is the food. For the folks who think veganism would turn them into a skeleton or just an ornery version of one's current self, think again. The menu at Rooted is flavorful and fresh. Simply put, it's divine.

14) Sky Galley
262 Wilmer Ave. (East End)

Located inside Lunken Airport, this probably isn't a place you've frequently passed by. Or even if you have, you were probably totally unaware that the restaurant existed. Well, it does. And it's worth a try. The decor is a bit dated (i.e. the feeling you get when visiting grandma's condo in Florida, where nothing's changed in two decades). But that's also part of the charm. And Lunken, unlike CVG, is an airport that harkens back to a time of the friendly skies -- not pat-downs, long lines, and cheesy gift shops.

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15) Fika Hus
508 W 12th St./ MLK Jr. Blvd. (Covington, Kentucky)

So teensy! So tasty! So peaceful! So... ! -- Whew, I could use a break.

Founded on the Swedish concept/ principle/ tradition of "fika" (fka) or "coffee break," this tucked-away li'l storefront is taking your coffee experience back to the good old days. Y'know, when you viewed a coffee shop as a refreshing destination/sanctuary where you could actually, like, sit down for a minute. And talk. And enjoy. And ... just breath.

Check this spot out. 'Cause, chances are, you could use a break too.

16) Swampwater Grill
3742 Kellogg Ave. (Columbia Tusculum)

I'm picturing family vacations... Days spent on the sandy shores of somewhere warm. Nights spent playing board games and watching VHS movies. Meals out at whatever deeply local li'l spot we could find (usually a steak-&-seafood establishment or crab shack of some kind). ... Ah those were the days.

Adulthood being what it is, I often find myself pining for the feelings that accompanied those times. That singular texture of experience. That timbre of sound. That collection of tastes. (Except now, I want a nice cold drink to help wash it all down.) Good thing there's Swampwater Grill.

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