Dine Quixote: Finding a tantalizing taste of Cuba in Ohio diner

I wish that the Starliner Diner in Hilliard, Ohio, had been there 35 years ago when my college roomie and I -- on our way from Kent State University to Dayton -- roared along Interstate 270 around Columbus, hitting speeds of 110 mph just to get off what had to be one of the most boring roads ever built. In those days there was nothing near any of the few exits and our goal was to make it about a half hour west on I-70 to Springfield, Ohio, where we'd gas up the Dodge Charger.

In later years, as Sherri Panza replaced Don the roomie, the goal was still Springfield, in order to grab a malt and some unpasteurized cream from Young's Jersey Dairy outside Yellow Springs. This was a custom that lasted until one day we pulled into Springfield only to find the dairy store gone. (And by all means, if you ever are in Yellow Springs, also just off I-70, you must stop at the dairy, which has its own restaurant and store. Their high-butterfat ice cream is a dieter's nightmare, and you can still see the cows, although the farm itself is now a major tourist attraction instead of a secret closely held by Antioch College students, aging hippies and those locals who were lucky enough to have teachers to pass on the secret.)

Anyway, what's so different about the Starliner Diner? Opened in 1994, it's set in an otherwise deserted shopping center on Cemetery Road in Hilliard, just off the I-270 bypass northwest of Columbus. According to a man who drives up with his family from West Virginia to Columbus to shop and to eat there, it's one of those places that, at first glance, you aren't quite sure you should enter.

Once you're inside the tiny, nondescript storefront, you gravitate to a huge sun and moon mural nearly covering a wall in the dining room to your left. Another wall holds a collection of clocks and other kitschy artwork. Overhead hangs the "starliner," a model of something from sci-fi movies.

Perhaps the most interesting item was unavailable for me to see. Or for any man. According to Sherri, in the women's restroom there is a portion of the Hieronymus Bosch triptych, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," with its visions of creation, life and the penalties of sin in the underworld. Perhaps this was installed at the instigation of Molly Davis, one of the owner-partners, but I didn't get the chance to ask.

I was focused on the unusual menu, offering -- in an Ohio diner, just a ways away from every major sit-down chain eatery imaginable -- Cuban food.

Of course, the menu offers a hamburger (what diner wouldn't?), chili (with a twist) and the basic breakfast fare of Midwestern Ohio -- eggs, toast, potatoes, sausage and pancakes. But everything else has a Cuban or a Latino pedigree. And don't think chain taco restaurant because these dishes, from the huevos to the black beans and all the way down the list to the adobo (all brought from a California restaurant by Ms. Davis' partner), taste just right.

In fact, on a recent overnight trip to Dayton and back I chose to repeat my appearance at one of their tables.

Regular readers already know my routine, and yes, I did start with a cup of chili. This cup ($5) of meaty, thick, and chile-hot "chunky chili" came in a bowl, while the bowls ($7.50) come in large soup plates. Served with home-baked jalapeno corn bread, it was topped with cheese and green onions.

Breakfast is something I can eat anytime, and the special for the day (about $8) was a machacca omelet. No, I didn't know what a machacca omelet was, but it was stuffed with pot-roasted brisket, onions, peppers and queso fresco, a fresh white cheese. It also was served with the diner's homemade smoked chili sauce, which is the perfect backstop for a traditional Cuban pressed sandwich, created from layers of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickle squished inside the diner's home-baked rolls ($8). Riding alongside the sandwich were chunks of fried plantain. The sugars on the surface of the plantain had caramelized while frying and provided a sweet and crunchy coating for the interior, which tasted more like a hot banana than any banana has the right to.

If this had been an ordinary diner, with just good food, or just good service, or an interesting decor, Sherri and I might have opted for another brunch spot the next day. But the murals, the cheery wait staff and the chance to get a plate of Cuban roast chicken led me off the highway and back into Hilliard. During the first stop I had joked to the waiter that we probably would be back the next day. Now, how often does someone say that? Lots of times, I bet. But when we walked through the door, it turned out our waiter was the roommate of the guy from the day before. And he couldn't believe we actually were there.

Truly, though, I wanted the Cuban-style roast chicken ($11) because years ago I frequented a restaurant in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., called Omega, which served onion-smothered roast chicken, redolent of a citrus marinade. Now, with a large platter of chicken, rice, beans and plantains in front of me, it was time to see if my memory could be sated along with my appetite.

So many things aren't what you think you remember, but this chicken, years and many miles away from my younger self, rang the bell. It was tender, moist and hauntingly laced with citrus. Not too big a portion, but with the tender black beans and rice -- well, I was full and happy and glad to sit there and chew on the bones.

As for Sherri, my choice of an omelet on Saturday became hers for Sunday morning. The special for the day was a mofongo omelet. Now this one I knew. Mofongo is a plantain dish revered in Puerto Rico, and this omelet was stuffed with plantains and ham and topped with their chili sauce and a special green onion mayonnaise. So what we had were rich fresh eggs, the salty tang of meat, the rich softness of plantain and contrasting sauces for a perfect combination.

For those of you who hope to try the Starliner, it does have unusual hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

Steelers fans on their way to Indianapolis and other Pittsburghers headed west should take the Hilliard-Rome exit off I-70 (just west of Columbus) and go north for a few miles. When you hit Cemetery Road, take a right. The diner is on your left at 5240. (You also can exit at Cemetery Road from the I-270 bypass and head west on Cemetery Road.)

Larry Roberts, who works as the Post-Gazette's assistant managing editor/photography when he's not out foraging for road food, can be reached at lroberts@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1512.


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