We recently made a trip to Cincinnati, which is hardly my favorite city in Ohio, but it has a decent enough number of attractions to keep you occupied. Their children’s museum in the Cincinnati Museum Center, a refurbished old train terminal still decorated in the Art Deco style, is a treat, as is the Cincinnati Zoo.
But for me, the highlight of our trip was a visit to the enormous grocery store, Jungle Jim’s International Market. Billed as six acres of foodie paradise, Jungle Jim’s was just amazing. When our hostess explained that we were going to go see a really cool grocery store, you may imagine my skepticism. “Really cool grocery store” could be placed up there with “awesome appliance outlet” and “great rug sample supplier” for yawn inducing phrasing.
Let me just tell you how wrong I was.
About the size of a Super Wal-Mart, Jungle Jim’s greets you with a pond out front replete with scale size elephants spouting water and various other safari style animal models surrounding the grounds. Inside, every section is broken down by international, ethnic, or food group category, and each section is decorated to fit the bill. Thus, the BBQ section (which featured alphabetized shelves of hot sauces numbering in the hundreds and included a glass fronted top shelf of “adult themed” sauces such as “Blow Me” and “Dickhead”) was topped with a real, old fashioned fire truck above the aisle on a metal platform.
The England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales section included a layout of Nottingham Woods with animatronic Robin Hood. The Mexican section offered piñatas. Near the seafood area (where you could purchase live tilapi and other fish) life size great white and hammerhead sharks hung from the ceiling. The bathroom doors are designed to appear as the entrance to a port-a-potty.
As far as selection went, Jungle Jim’s is, in my experience, without peer. I’ve never seen that many brands, flavors, or styles of tofu in the entirety of my life if you added all tofu-related exposure up. It is a pleasure just to walk the aisles and remarking upon all the varietals of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, noodles of every nation, chocolate bars, and so on.
The only place I’ve seen to compare their beer and wine selection to was the Liquor Mart in Boulder, Colorado which is an alcoholic’s heaven.
But what caught my fancy specifically were the odd cola selections.
Now I’m a sucker for other countries candies, beverages, and other non-meat treats. One of my favorite things to do at unusual ethnic restaurants is to order something I’ve never had before, some combination platter of novelty or mysterious dish containing words I don’t know. The surprise is often the best part of it all. (For the record, if in Germany, stay away from weisswurst, a concoction that looks like nothing so much as a sun-bleached dog turd, with a taste one assumes must match.)
The first strange beverage I picked up was a disgusting looking can of what was unappealingly named “Grass Jelly Drink.” I carried it over to show the family and our hostess. All agreed that it looked distinctively nasty. But for fifty nine cents, how could I not purchase it? Plus, it would give me the added bonus of being able to display it on my desk at work to the disgusted interest of my coworkers.
And that’s where the idea came from. Being that I work with fun individuals, it occurred to me that here was a group I could compel to try all the beverages I found. I began to go through the rows and pick a distinctive sampling of what I could find. Then I would take it to work Monday morning and have an old fashioned, sit-down-around-the-table taste test with the other three people in my department.
Here’s what we discovered.
Our first soda was the hilariously titled Thums Up from India. The bottle of this drink had apparently been through the refund/recycle mill more than a few times. Scuffed to an almost translucent gritty surface, the logo is a cheesy hand giving the thumbs up sign. The precise reason the name lacks a “b” is open to conjecture. Now owned and bottled by the Coca-Cola company, Thums Up has a distinctly straight ahead cola flavor, though there is an undercurrent of something else. It is so marked by a slightly flat taste, that our palates were undeterred in ferreting out some peculiar additional flavor. We puzzled over what it could be. Curry? No, that was way too much flavor for a cola. Clove? Hmmm…There was something to that. Possibly cumin? Again, not really a cola flavor match. According to Wikipedia that distinct additional flavor is betel nut. Interesting. A decent, not too bad cola. Were I in India, I might take a shine to it. Here in the states, it’s too rare to make a habit of.
Our next choice was Cheerwine, bought more for its name and by-gone era style bottle than anything else. A concoction dating back to 1917, Cheerwine is a cherry flavored soda and one of the great favorites of the group. Sweet without being overly sugary, it lacks the cloyingness of cherry cokes you can get at fifties style diners and has a bit more sizzle than the canned major brands’ offerings. Plus, the smaller serving sized bottles are just the right amount. Be sure to check out their cheesy but fun website.
The “edgy” and “naughty” named Fukola Cola was next up to taste. With a label written by what sounds like a high school punker or goth, the ingredient list states: “The stuff pumped into this bottle is or was:” and the other side reads:
Pumped into the bottle for the Skeleteens/Eat Me Foods in LA, CA. Slip & slide into www.sekeleteens.com Found on bathroom wall 818.844.31_1.
Well, aren’t you all some edgy kids? Their website, by the way, doesn’t work, though Googling Skeleteens will bring you to amateur hour web design.
The cola on the other hand, packed full of stuff like kava-kava, guarana, lime oil, orange oil, clove, blends of ginseng, dill weed, echinacea, and so on. I worried with the addition of kava it would be unpalatable in the extreme, but instead it was rather pleasant, a little different of a flavor, but nothing nearly as shocking as the marketing would lead you to believe. Others have compared it to Jolt though it lacked the sincerely acrid sweetness of that legendary soda. Whether or not any of the various pick-me-up herbals included had any effect, I can’t vouch for, as it did little for me. A decent flavor, but again, nothing I’d buy with any regularity.
The disgusting. People shuddered at the pour of Grass Jelly. They gagged at the smell. I myself wet my tongue twice, while one coworker (who grew up in Hong Kong) drank his whole cup. Another in a long list of inexplicable Asian tastes, grass jelly is a sort of mint jello made from distilling the leaves of the Mesona chinensis plant. Almost black in color, the jelly itself made its appearance in the brownish water and syrup concoction as little specks of floaters no bigger than a paper match’s tip. Bitter, but sweet, with a smell like old socks left out to mildew in the rain, the Grass Jelly Drink just about brought the whole enterprise to a halt. That’s why I made it the next-to-last on the sampler platter. You’d never start with something so foul or you’d have your work cut out for you convincing the rest of your party to continue, but if only for compassionate reasons you’d not end on such nastiness in a can. I’ve drank bargain basement malt liquor better than this (and would eagerly do so again if given the choice). The drinking equivalent of smoking a cigarette stuffed human hair and cotton candy.
We ended the taste test with a sample of the Mountain Dew styled Kickapoo Joy Juice. I can’t quite pierce the connection between citrus flavored sodas and Appalachia, but there is the most common brand, there is this one, and there once was a concoction called Hillbilly Joose. A slightly milder flavor than Mountain Dew (and if memory serves much weaker than Hillbilly Joose), Kickapoo Joy Juice was a fizzy pleasure without any real lasting impression. In that respect, it was the perfect foil to Grass Jelly as it enabled our brains to repress the memory of its predecessor. The bottle is fun, but the soda itself, like every single of the others, is something to be enjoyed on rare occasions as a unusual treat. Lacking any real distinction, I’d rank this as one of the better sodas in flavor, but only just above Grass Jelly in likelihood of repeat purchase.
All in all, a successful venture, especially by the owners of Jungle Jim’s. If you hoped to entice me back to Cincinnati, I know of at least one place whose siren call will prove irresistible.