12 West in Delaware is back after fire

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Ron Criswell was bartending at his 6-month-old eatery, catering to a few tables of late lunchers when a man ran in from across the street, yelling, "Your building's on fire!"

"OK, he's crazy," was Criswell's first reaction as he politely stepped outside to check the man's story. Sure enough, smoke was pouring from the windows above 12 West in Delaware.

After evacuating customers, Criswell and his team grabbed fire extinguishers and ran upstairs to try to put out the flames. "The entire room filled with black and smoke," he recalls. "We got out and from there it gets a little blurry. It seemed surreal."

The timing couldn't have been worse. It was Dec. 22. Insurance claims and cleanup moved slowly around the holidays. Standing water, to the tune of 2,000 gallons, Criswell says, remained in the restaurant for a month.

"It meant that we were starting over, the restaurant that we had just built," says Criswell. The cause of the fire was never determined, though he suspects it started in old upstairs outlet that ignited paper in storage. "We had to redo everything."

Closed for almost four months, 12 West-a Southwest-meets-Midwest eatery-has made a strong comeback, reopening mid-April. The casual 38-seater had been popular before the fire, but business has been up 30 percent since it reopened, says Criswell, who co-owns the restaurant with David DiStefano.

It's for good reason. 12 West is the sort of polished eatery every neighborhood would be lucky to have. The staff is friendly. The setting is no-frills. And the food is seasonal and well-prepared. It's familiar fare, but most dishes have unexpected touches that show you're getting more than standard bar food.

Dishes are distinctly Southwest-inspired. Empanadas ($7) are stuffed with chorizo and queso fresco. Meatloaf ($12) is spiced with green chilies and topped with a smoky chipotle honey glaze. And a burger ($10) contains a blend of ground beef and chorizo.

All of 12 West's employees, including chef Spencer Haney, returned after the fire. When the restaurant initially opened, Haney told me he loves working with a range of proteins and wants to push diners to try new things. He had the perfect vehicle for this experiment: tacos.

This is where you should look on the menu if you're up for stepping outside your comfort zone. You can find usual fillers like ancho chili chicken and carnitas on the a la carte taco menu. But look to the chalkboard for daily specials. This is where Haney has some fun with sweetbreads, calamari and pork belly.

If Oyster Tacos ($5.50) are listed, order them. Large oysters are dredged in buttermilk and cornmeal and fried until crisp on the outside. Tacos are topped with red cabbage and brown sugar Sriracha for a sweet-spicy punch. It's one of the best things I've eaten this year.

Also a good choice: the Chef's Vegetarian Tostada ($7.50)-two crisp tortillas filled with a homey puree of pinto beans and guacamole and topped with crisp sauteed vegetables. It's the kind of one-bowl dish you eat until it's gone, even though you were full halfway through.

The unexpected closure gave Haney and the rest of the team a chance to reevaluate and tweak the menu, says Criswell, a former partner in the group that owns The Rossi, Club 185 and other Columbus area restaurants. It also led to new worthwhile menu items like Faroe Island Salmon ($16) with smoked jalapeno cream and house marmalade, and Santa Fe Pork Shank ($17) with green chili polenta.

"You can't overlook that dish," Criswell says. "That's the best dish I've ever had."