When it comes to barbecue, Cleveland will never be an Austin, Kansas City or Memphis. Hell, Cleveland likely wouldn't even crack the top 20 best cities for barbecue. To compare the local smoked offerings with those found in exalted barbecue burgs is an exercise in futility, frustration and despair.
That's why I've simply stopped bothering — not eating it, mind you, just dissecting it with a competition judge's fanatical eye. Dining out should be fun not frustrating, and pigging out on barbecue is just about the most fun one can have while seated at a table. Gather some friends around heaping platters of smoky meats, add some cold beer and great music, and you best not open your mouth to complain.
Held against these standards, Oak and Embers Tavern in Chesterland is a winner. Opened in March by Marc and Gretchen Garofoli, the laid-back eatery specializes in three of life's greatest pleasures: barbecue, bourbon and beer. The old Murphy's Tavern was gutted to create an open and comfortable dining room. A custom-built Nolen smoker, shipped in from Missouri, turns out batches of hickory smoked beef brisket, pork shoulder, baby back ribs and half chickens. The two main sauces are a Carolina mustard and a bourbon barbecue.
From the moment our party was seated, we knew we were in for a great time. The music was loud, the dining room was crowded, and the attached bar gave the place an appropriate roadhouse feel. Oak and Embers is the antithesis of fancy — precisely as a barbecue joint should be. Our bouncy server had drinks on the table in record time, and appetizers weren't too far behind. We passed what little down time there was doodling on the brown craft-paper-topped tables with provided crayons.
I'd normally steer clear of tacos at a barbecue joint, but when our server noted that the chicken tacos ($9.49) are filled with 100-percent smoked and pulled thigh meat, the debate was pretty much settled. Three flour tortillas are topped with hefty portions of wood-smoked meat and a drizzle of bright citrus aioli. A smattering of shredded lettuce and tomato is served on the side for those who want it. Like all food, the tacos are served unceremoniously on wax-paper-lined pizza pans. They join piles of smoked chicken wings ($9.99), meaty specimens dripping in tangy, spicy sauce.
You don't often find burnt ends ($8.99), a delicious byproduct of the barbecue process, in local restaurants. Just the sight of them on the appetizer menu conjured visions of dark and gnarly nuggets of heavenly textured beef brisket bark. Unfortunately, the ones we sampled were one-dimensional, all soft and squiggly like braised beef, with none of those blissful burnt bits. The good news is that the beef brisket entree ($14.49) is immensely flavorful, if not quite a blue ribbon winner. A good pound of thick-sliced, hickory-smoked beef is moist, meltingly tender and fatty in all the right places. Better yet, it's not buried beneath a gallon of sauce.
On my next visit to Oak and Embers, I'll skip the smoked half chicken ($12.99), a perfectly acceptable entree for unambitious diners, and just focus on the ribs and fried chicken. The baby back ribs ($23.99/full) sport just the sort of delicious bark that the burnt ends did not. Beneath that charred mantle of crust is expertly smoked pork, all pink, porky and subtly sweet. If they had a touch more firmness, they'd rank as some of the city's best bones.
When your buttermilk fried chicken ($10.49) starts with boneless thighs, you already have a wing up on the competition. The marinated dark meat stays moist and juicy beneath a crackling-crisp layer of breading, and the lack of bones makes eating them an effortless pleasure.
Of course, there are scratch-made sides galore, like corn-studded, cheddar-topped muffins, creamy succotash, sweet potato fries, mild and milky mac and cheese, and fluffy white cheddar grits, to name a few.
Drink prices are more than agreeable, with oversize craft drafts like Lagunitas and Bell's coming in at just $4.50. A bourbon special of the night offered up an endless flow of $5 Knob Creeks — any way you called them. Show up before 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and those prices are even lower.
Given that barbecue takes 20 minutes to learn and a lifetime to master, we have nothing but high hopes for this place. If the Garofolis continue on their current path of slow-smoked study, they'll be cranking out some of the best 'cue on the east side.