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A Cage Worth Rattling

An eastern outpost is slinging genuine 'Q in Cleveland Heights

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BBQ joints have generally never been part of my regular dining rotation -- not that it's not my thing, but with a few exceptions, Cleveland lacks good, smoky BBQ options. That's all changed with a new addition to the small canon of restaurants slinging genuine 'cue.

Rib Cage is a modest little smokehouse BBQ restaurant on Lee Road just south of Cedar. Smallish yet neat and clean, the atmosphere feels larger, with a solid blues soundtrack establishing the right ambiance for smoked meats masterworks. The first impression elicits all the right words when talking about barbeque: authentic, down-home, Southern.

For the record, their priorities are straight. Proud supporters of Community Greenhouse Partners, Rib Cage stocks as much of its product as it can locally from sustainable and ethical suppliers. You can taste the difference in every bite.

Before the meat, however, come the snacks. We grabbed the fried green tomatoes, toasted with panko crumbs and served with Sriracha. Crips, with a bright acidic flavor beneath the breading, the tomatoes stand up nicely and firmly. So, too, did the onion rings, which are hand-dipped in buttermilk and flash-fried with a side of wasabi aioli. Fried vegetables, after all, are the best kind of vegetables.

But those were just a tease, a sweet little taste before what we really came for: meat, and lots of it. The St. Louis-style ribs were sensational, the pork benefiting from the dry, smoky flavor of the mustard vinegar sauce, one of the nine sauces offered by Rib Cage. The meat fell delightfully and slyly off the bone as only perfectly cooked rib meat can. We also slathered the mustard vinegar – bright, flavorful, but not too "wet" – on the pulled pork.

In almost every case, and the pulled pork included, the meat was perfectly cooked. The lone exception was the beef brisket, enjoyed with the house BBQ, which was a tad on the dry side. That slight disappointment quickly flittered away once the turkey ribs landed on the table. Yes, turkey ribs. With the meat sliced diagonally, the succulent slices of fowl were the most surprising and succulent on the menu.

Rib Cage nails the side dishes, too. With two per entrée, mixing and matching is encouraged. We loved the roasted corn on the cob, cooked in the husk, which brings out the natural sweet flavor of the veggie. A mix of collards and seasonal greens with smoked turkey sings straight from the South, as do the bourbon baked beans and the coleslaw, concocted with green cabbage, radicchio and thinly sliced Ohio apples.

What's dinner at a BBQ joint without sweet potato pie to finish? No dinner at all, and Rib Cage's slice of hospitality is topped with bourbon whipped cream and bourbon caramel sauce. (Bourbon, it turns out, is a perfect ingredient for most anything.)

Battling filled bellies and dizzied heads, we never did have a chance to sample the Stupid Fries, an appetizer whose place on the menu originated with a bartender's mis-hap. Sort of like a spin on a Southern/Irish version of nachos, pulled pork (or brisket) is piled high on sliced taters with slaw, sauce, and nacho cheese.

Since our first trip was on a slow Monday night in January, we established an immediate rapport with our pleasant and loquacious bartender who filled us in on extensive and carefully planned bar menu. His expert recommendation, Eagle Rare, a 10-year barrel-aged bourbon with sweet vanilla and caramel flavors, was the perfect antidote to the weather.

On the second visit, I opted for a selection from their signature bourbon cocktail list, this time guided into the direction of The Black Derby (lime juice, sweet vermouth and Grand Marnier) and an Old Fashioned Knob (Knob Creek single barrel, bitters, navel orange and simple syrup).

They're taking a more traditional approach here, going back to a time when the Old Fashioned was considered new, the 80s --I mean the 1880s. As they say on their menu, " ... no soda or excessive fruit to distract from this classic."

Which is what Rib Cage should become: a classic in the 216, with rib-sticking, authentic BBQ delivered with honesty in good portions. Oh, and don't forget the bourbon.

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