If and when weed becomes legal in Ohio, Chow Chow Kitchen stands to benefit almost as much as the head shops that will supply all that paper, glass and brass paraphernalia. Although it's not billed that way, this sporty little Lakewood cafe is selling some of the best stoner food in the tri-county region.
Exhibit A: Corn Dogs ($6), smoky andouille slices dipped in cornmeal batter, fried to crackling and threaded seven deep onto a wooden skewer. But it's the dipping sauce, this creamy, smoky "gumbo crema" that will leave diners — baked or otherwise — licking the plastic ramekin clean.
In all of his descriptions of Chow Chow leading up to its early October opening, owner Joseph Zegarac never once uttered the phrase "Southern street food." Hell, I'm not sure that it's even a thing. But after two visits during which I ordered more than three-quarters of the menu (devouring much of it in the car on the drive home), that's exactly how I'd describe it. Street food is food that you eat on the run, and that's the rule of thumb here, where less than a dozen seats cater mainly to those anxiously waiting for their take-out orders to be filled.
Like a discriminating shopper in an edibles dispensary, Zegarac hand-picked some of his favorite Southern comfort food dishes for inclusion on the menu regardless of their place of origin, be it New Orleans, Nashville or the Low Country of South Carolina. Other dishes he simply plucked out of thin air, likely inventions of an overactive imagination.
Exhibit B: West City Pork ($9), the love child of General Tso's and city chicken, features crispy nuggets of popcorn pork tossed in a sweet and spicy blackberry glaze and sided by fiery Cajun fried rice.
Walk into Chow Chow and you'll be greeted not only by a cheerful host/order-taker/cashier, but also a wall full of colorful menu boards ostensibly designed for the attention-challenged. Like circus sideshow banners promising two-headed calves or the bearded lady, Chow Chow's billboards tout "Smoked Pork Po' Boys" and "FISH 'n' CHIPS" and "HOT Chicken!" Another placard promises relief in the form of ice-cold Southern sweet tea.
I had sky-high hopes for that Nashville hot chicken ($7.50), a howlin' hot upgrade to fried chicken. In Nashville — and anywhere the dish is done right — the chicken is fried until golden brown and then subjected to a hot oil and spice mixture that delivers the signature blast furnace of heat while preserving every bit of crunch. That's not the formula here, where the fried chicken gets more of a buffalo-style toss in hot sauce that adds fire but at the expense of crispiness.
My only gripe with the regular fried chicken, here called Winner Dinner ($7.50), is that white meat is the only option. Granted, the bone-in meat is moist and juicy, but I'd love to see how that sexy, golden brown outfit looks on a leg or thigh. The "dinner" portion of the dish includes good and lumpy mashed potatoes, a flaky biscuit and a dollop of white gravy.
In a land devoid of snowplows and salt trucks, you gotta wonder how Southerners came up with a repertoire of soups, stews and brews so comforting they'd make flannel pajamas feel jealous. Zegarac's bowls are so meaty, flavorful and deeply satisfying that calling them soups is a missed opportunity.
Exhibits C1: Gumbo; and C2: Ham & Bean. At $4 per serving, these two soups might be the best things going here. Served atop a bed of white rice, the gumbo is smoky and spicy, with tender chunks of pork and okra bobbing in the rust-colored gravy. Just like it sounds, the ham and bean soup is loaded with meaty tangles of shredded ham and powdery pintos in a creamy, peppery base that managed to extract every last bit of flavor out of that blessed pig.
Like the occasional bong hit, Chow Chow is not an everyday occasion. Fried foods outnumber non-fried foods 2-to-1, and I'm including desserts like the banana ice cream sandwich in the tally. But who's keeping track when you're staring down a platter of panko-breaded catfish ($9) and housemade potato chips the size of shoehorns? Or smoked salmon-studded hushpuppies ($6) that get dunked into lemony tartar sauce? Or a Po' Boy ($7.50) sandwich stuffed with crispy nuggets of BBQ fried chicken topped with coleslaw and sweet pickles? Not me, that's who.
FYI: If for some reason it feels like time is moving like molasses, it's a good idea to call in your dinner order well ahead of time.