Local ingredients and in-house smoking, butchering and baking elevate the limited offerings on a tiny, meat-centric menu
When were you last wowed by a ham and cheese sandwich? For me, the answer is easy: The last time I dined at inexpensive, overachieving Baba's, one of the most endearingly idiosyncratic little eateries in Columbus.
Open about a year in the North Campus neighborhood, Baba's is across the street from the Evolved Body Art tattoo shop, a neighborly business acknowledged on Baba's menu. Another restaurant marker stands near Baba's entranceway: a sandwich board announcing “No frills Upfront/ Food & Coffee/ Until 5.”
Much of the establishment's long and narrow space is taken up by the kitchen, which makes sense for a no-nonsense place that celebrates an everything-from-scratch aesthetic. Underneath the tall, raftered ceiling, seating for maybe 15 people is offered at simple tables, some of which are wooden planks steadfastly anchored to walls.
The spare, rustic and arty interior also features plants; hand-built shelves; metal tub “lampshades”; an evocative old photograph of the street outside; and an acid-green rendering of Pee-wee Herman asking if you've bussed your table. Counter service is knowledgeable and often extremely charming.
This minimalist setting is home to a tiny, meat-centric menu. As a server can explain, and as your taste buds will relate, the fare leans heavily on local ingredients and is distinctly delicious.
And it reflects the vision of butcher/baker/chef and co-owner Dan Kraus. Kraus — whose wife, co-owner Caroline, often works the counter — previously commandeered distinguished mobile-food operations such as Baba's Porch and That Food Truck.
Kraus' brick-and-mortar business opened primarily as a morning spot featuring terrific breakfast sandwiches called Griddle Muffins ($8). Like artisanal Egg McMuffins — yes, that's oxymoronic — they're made with local eggs, melted, Amish-sourced havarti cheese and puffy-yet-hearty griddled house muffins created with Amish-sourced grains.
The price includes a choice of sauteed vegetables or excellent meats such as house-made sausage, house-butchered and house-smoked bacon or racy and addictive house chorizo. Add a locally roasted Thunderkiss coffee ($2.50; $3 for cold brew) and you've got a serious eye-opener.
As Baba's regular menu grew beyond breakfast, its signature muffins became integral components of fare such as that first-class Ham and Cheese Sandwich. Thick, griddled slabs of juicy, tender, high-quality local ham join sharp cheddar that's gooey inside the muffin and fried to a frico-like crispness where it juts over the edge. Tab: the best $5 you'll spend this week.
The Insideout Grilled Cheese ($7) hits many of the same wonderful notes. It's a similar sandwich, but has even more crisped cheese and chorizo instead of ham.
Griddle-smashed hamburger fans should target the Diner Burger ($7). Again, simple-but-excellent ingredients — fresh beef, sharp cheese and a nifty roll — plus strong execution equal a home run. For a grand slam, add some of the best fries I've had in a long time ($3).
A few $12 entrees are offered. These include a half-rack of fatty-but-delicious spare ribs or a juicy, tender half-chicken — both meats expertly house-smoked and served with Baba's fantastic fries.
Another same-priced meal, the Evolved Plate, requires blind faith. Originally a secret menu item only for the Evolved staff, it's a chef's whim special, always created on the spot, now available to anybody not deterred by these stated caveats: “no questions, no complaints.”
On one occasion, it was Baba's top-notch smoked chicken flash-fried so the skin resembled chicharrones. Zesty house harissa sauce and spiral-cut sauteed vegetables came on the side.
A meatless Evolved Plate is offered, too. Mine was Baba's familiar, spiral-cut veggies — mostly carrots, onions and cabbage — accessorized with harissa and other perfectly sauteed local goodies such as kale, juicy tomatoes, smoked cabbage, an egg and an unlikely pear. Baba's menu proved prophetic because, when finished, I had no questions and no complaints.