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Hitting Ohio's highways

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Ohio had puzzled me. On the map I saw a sprawling state, presumably rich with history. It has the seventh-highest population and big cities — but it had never been suggested to me as a vacation possibility. As a city guy, I was intrigued.

I decided to road trip with some friends, cramming as much Ohio as possible into three days. Mostly, that came in the way of food.

We left Chicago on a Thursday afternoon, taking Interstate Highways 65 and then 74 through Indiana, arriving in Cincinnati, at the bottom of the state, after 2 a.m.

"You guys are from Chicago?" a native greeted us. "Why would you come to Cincinnati?" He and his friends provided — and later joined us for — the answer: 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. If that wasn't enough, we had a new friend, who triumphantly showed off his biceps tattooed with Reds and Bengals logos. Ohio pride is strong.

Cincinnati, with art deco and Italianate architecture, was more than just inked chili enthusiasts. We figured breakfast the next morning held more gluttonous potential. So we followed up on a local's assurance that the best meal would be found at Camp Washington Chili (3005 Colerain Ave., 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 heaping sides of cheese favored by Cincinnatians at the next table.

Yes, we had eaten the exact same meal in less than 12 hours.

We drove north on Interstate Highway 75 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., 937-255-3286, http://www.nationalmuseum.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., 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., 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 returned to I-75, but our visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2121 George Halas Drive Northwest, Canton; 330-456-8207; profootballhof.com) was delayed after we missed an exit on Interstate Highway 71 and stumbled upon Grandpa's Cheesebarn (668 U.S. Highway 250, 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 affordably 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 Ave., 330-673-2233, 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 (hamburgerfestival.com). Mark your calendar for next 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.

The festival's Burger Queen was a student who looked the part with a sash and standing under a pink umbrella. I asked if this was the high point of Akron. "This is my highlight of the year of Akron," she said matter-of-factly.

Returning to Interstate Highway 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., Toledo).

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., 419-246-1111, 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 the perfect meal before a six-hour drive home.

We returned to Chicago on Interstate Highway 80 late Sunday after visiting seven cities in three days, spanning 19 hours in the car and 1,110 miles. And who knows how much chili was eaten?

As for Ohio, I learned it's a state rich with Midwestern flavor. And it tastes delicious.

jahopkins@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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