2016 will always go down as the year that the Cavs won the NBA Championship, the Tribe made it to Game 7 of the World Series, and great barbecue descended upon the masses like manna from heaven. In no previous year did more authentic barbecue joints set up shop in the 216 than the one about to expire. Every month, it seemed, another practitioner of the craft would hang out a hickory shingle revealing a new broker of slow-cooked meats, not that the plume of fragrant wood smoke doesn't serve as a beacon all its own.
While it might look like Cleveland is at the epicenter of a smoking-hot trend thanks to the arrival of Mabel's BBQ, Proper Pig, Woodstock, Barabicu, Rib Sticks and others that recently entered the game, the truth of the matter is that barbecue is one of the hottest food trends in the nation right now and has been for the better part of a decade. As is the case with many food-based crazes, it's just taken its good, sweet time getting here.
All this talk about the sudden rise in barbecue joints naturally gives rise to the question of Cleveland's barbecue past. It's not like folks in these here parts have gone without since the dawn of time. In fact, thanks to folks like Virgil Whitmore, Eugene "Hot Sauce" Williams, and a shadowy but influential man named Black King, locals have been enjoying barbecue ribs, shoulders and trotters (pigs' feet) since the 1930s.
In 1934, Williams paid King $100 for one of his failing barbecue shops, eventually turning it into a small chain of eateries. Williams, who earned the nickname "King of Barbecue," did so well that he bought a 63-acre farm in Solon and famously fished in Lake Erie while seated in the front seat of his chauffeured Cadillac.
Whitmore, who was born in 1907 in Daingerfield, Texas, also made a name for himself by smoking ribs.
Various Whitmore and Hot Sauce Williams barbecue spots popped up all over town — and even out of town — some at the hands of family members and others not. At all of them, the bill of fare was built around pork ribs and butts, which were cooked slowly over hot coals and coated in a proprietary sauce based on "secret" recipes. Hot Sauce's version — like most of the day, a ketchup, vinegar and molasses-based concoction — was said to have been handed down for generations, originating many years prior in the Deep South.
Around the same time and in the years since, but operating from a completely different frame of reference, were popular places like the Tick Tock Tavern in Lakewood, Harvey's at Cedar Center, Mimi's in Mentor, Geppetto's on the west side and Flo & Eddie's on the east side. As was the fashion of the day, the ribs all were steamed, baked or boiled before landing on the (likely gas) grill. The nonconventional practice accomplishes a number of things, not all of them good. It eliminates a large portion of the fat, it greatly reduces grilling time, and it tenderizes the meat. All you lose in the process is every last ounce of flavor.
Cleveland's barbecue forefathers knew this and today's rising stars of barbecue know this, but for some reason the knowledge seemed to have passed over an entire generation of restaurant cooks. Undoubtedly, the deficits in technique and quality can be blamed on timing, location and equipment. Almost all of our barbecue legends were operating in an era and in neighborhoods where it was perfectly acceptable to cook meat outdoors over live fire for hours on end. Try doing that today on Clifton Boulevard and see how long it takes for the health department to arrive. Advances in smoker technology have given pitmasters the ability to bring the art and craft of real barbecue to the heart of urban centers.
It's not that our blessed town has been entirely bereft of good barbecue, with places here and gone like Fat Casual, Freddie's Southern Style Rib House, Blazin' Bills, Oak and Embers, Rib Cage, and Bubba's-Q all coming to mind. It's just that compared to the trickle that has taken place in the past, today's embarrassment of riches feels a bit like a waterfall. But it isn't simply the quantity of barbecue restaurants that we're so excited about, it's the quality of the product this new generation of pitmasters is putting out.
So, what exactly is so different? For starters, it's the meat. Today's chefs have access to better quality, often pasture-raised heritage breed pork, beef and poultry. These varieties have higher percentages of fat than their conventional counterparts, making them ideally suited for the low and slow smoking process. Good chefs also know that the best way to show off great product is to season it minimally, cook it right, and get out of the way. In barbecue, that translates into a diminished focus on elaborate rubs and sauces. As the pros these days say, "If they're talking about the sauce, you're doing it wrong."
Though it has roots firmly planted in Texas, the barbecue that Michael Symon is preparing at Mabel's has a distinctly Northeast Ohio perspective. His "Cleveland-style" approach employs indigenous apple and cherry woods in the smoker in place of oak or hickory. He replaces the typical Texas-style hot links for locally made kielbasa. He swaps out the yellow mustard in a Carolina-style sauce with Bertman Ballpark Mustard, a condiment around since Virgil Whitmore's day. Cornbread and macaroni and cheese? That's Southern, he says, instead offering Eastern European-rooted sides like spaetzle and cabbage.
"The coolest thing that I've seen more than anything is that all these guys have their own distinct style," Symon told Scene. "It all falls within a particular region, but they all kind of make it their own. That's really reinforced for me that I want to work hard to make the barbecue at Mabel's very Cleveland-centric."
Mabel's is a full-serve, sit-down eatery where along with highballs of Kentucky bourbon, guests enjoy meaty pork ribs, even meatier beef ribs, succulent brisket and juicy smoked turkey. For those of us who grew up thinking that ribs should be falling-off-the-bone tender, Symon's firm but yielding spare ribs will forever remedy that misconception.
Shane Vidovic and Ted Dupaski launched Proper Pig Smokehouse in Lakewood the very same week that Mabel's opened, but the pair had been running a popular food truck of the same name for two years leading up to it. Proving Symon's point that "everybody makes it their own," Proper Pig is a completely different style of operation, where guests queue up at the counter before grabbing seats in the colorful, casual dining room. Like many of the great spots down South or out West, this one is largely communal. Texas-style brisket, St. Louis pork ribs, heavenly pulled pork and hot link sausages bursting with juiciness have been selling out since opening day.
Not far away, Woodstock owner Robert Togliatti transformed the dive bar Trio's in Lakewood into a bright, open and festive neighborhood saloon that specializes in barbecue from various points on the map. Memphis, Nashville, Kansas City, Austin ... anyplace with a good smoked-meat culture is represented through menu items like brisket, pulled pork, turkey, rib tips, sausage and smoked chicken wings.
Jon Ashton and Danny Cassano parlayed a spot on the Great Food Truck Race into Barabicu, a small, largely take-out barbecue spot in Parma. The inspiration for many of the items served there comes directly from the cities the guys hit while filming that Food Network show. Pit stops in Austin, Oklahoma City and St. Louis begot meaty baby back ribs with a sticky-sweet sauce, Texas-style beef brisket with burnt ends, Southern-style pulled pork and whole smoked, jerk-style chickens.
And these are just the tip of the iceberg. As we usher in 2017, barbecue fans will get to judge the barbecue offerings at places like Rib Sticks, where the owner adds the unconventional step of sous vide before smoking and grilling items like beef short ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork and spare ribs. In Mayfield, Giovanni's Ristorante owner Carl Quagliata and his chef Zachary Ladner will open the Texas-style Smokin' Q in the longtime home of Fisher's Tavern, while down in Twinsburg, Marc and Gretchen Garofoli will open the second outpost of their popular Oak & Embers in the longtime home of Marcelita's Mexican restaurant.
Cleveland barbecue has come a long way from those early, formative days, when all a guy needed were some meaty pork ribs, a 55-gallon drum, and a top-secret sauce recipe.