Clevelanders have every right to brag about our current restaurant scene, a fine collection of trendy dining rooms, down-to-earth pubs and above-average boites filled with talented chefs and knowledgeable staffers. Arguably, no one has been more pivotal in ushering in this culinary nirvana than Michael Symon: our own Iron Chef, James Beard Award-winning "Best Chef, Great Lakes," and beloved co-host of ABC's The Chew.
Lola; the late, lamented Lolita; and B Spot Burgers have all been hits in Symon's home town. Now, as you might have heard, he's doing barbecue. If you doubt the significance of this — of his recently opened Mabel's BBQ on svelte East Fourth Street, and his reported goal of bringing "Cleveland-style barbecue" to the masses — just spend 10 minutes hanging out near Mabel's door eavesdropping on the tourists, suburbanites and assorted day-trippers peering in the window at the small shrine to Symon's good works, filled with branded ball caps, shot glasses, aprons, T-shirts and cookbooks emblazoned with his grinning mug. "Oohhh," they coo. "It's Michael Symon's place. I love him. We should try it!"
More often than not, this declaration is followed by a short shuffle into the line — there is almost always a line — leading into the 110-seat restaurant. Do not be discouraged: Speedy service, rapid-fire execution by the kitchen, and a semi-loud soundtrack of high-energy tunes do a good job of keeping the tables turning.
Why do we need a Cleveland-style barbecue, you may ask? Because, Symon replies, "I didn't want to be in Cleveland making Texas barbecue. It didn't make sense, especially when we have a great history of smoked meats, mostly with Eastern European roots. It wasn't that hard to connect the dots," he says, "and move toward something that reflects our city."
Mabel's resulting blend of culinary and cultural references is clever and mostly satisfying. It's no accident, for instance, that the industrially chic space — long and narrow, with two floors of seating and a lively bar snuggled beneath a high vaulted ceiling — prompts thoughts of the venerable West Side Market. Symon has, in fact, turned to several market-based purveyors for ingredients, including bread maker Mediterra Bakehouse and J & J Czuchraj Meats, creators of the outstanding kielbasa that finds its way into the Polish Girl Sandwich, the "meats by the half-pound" lineup, and the mountainous "This is Cleveland" entree ($19), where four fat lengths of the snappy sausage cohabit a plate with sweet-and-juicy braised cabbage and three meaty, peppery pork ribs.
Dry rubbed and smoked over Ohio apple and cherry wood for three hours, those pork ribs ($15 a half-slab) are the menu's champs. Meaty, slightly resistant to the tooth — yet yielding coyly at just the right moment — and bearing the requisite rosy smoke ring, they earn the right to bear the "Cleveland barbecue" standard.
As for the process, Symon points out that smoke should be a kiss, not a clobber: "The smokiness should be in balance, just like any other seasoning." And while you may still overhear grumbling from fellow diners who have not yet learned that "barbecue" is a cooking technique, not a sauce, these ribs should prove instructive. If you must gild the lily, squirt on a bit of Mabel's barbecue sauce, a thin, apple cider-vinegar-y brew based on Cleveland's famous Bertman's Original Ballpark Mustard, with a hint of maple syrup. While it isn't hot (try a few drops of the Secret Aardvark habanero sauce, from Portland, Oregon, for that), it does deliver a black-peppery kick, and serves as an inspired foil to the unctuous ribs.
On the other hand, a half-pound portion of barbecued pork belly ($14) had nothing much beyond salt and fat to recommend it. And while the Mr. Beef brisket sandwich ($14) was considerably leaner, it was also slightly dry. Shaved red onion and pickles helped; a slather of mayo, while plenty Cleveland, didn't.
If the pork ribs are Mabel's most delicious offering, the giant beef rib ($38) is the most impressive. Essentially a two-pound, bone-in pot roast rubbed with Eastern European-style "pastrami spices" (salt, pepper, mustard seed, paprika, coriander) and smoked over fruitwood for 15 hours, this bruiser — like all the meats — arrives at the table on a paper-lined baking sheet, sided with bread-and-butter pickles (from Cleveland Pickle), a cheerfully pink kraut (from Cleveland Kraut) and two slices of sturdy white bread (from Mediterra).
There are parts aplenty on the side; we recommend the cracklins ($7): salty, crunchy, lighter-than-air poufs of fried pig skin that dissolve on the tongue like butter. If they aren't quite irresistible enough on their own, the side of authentic Lawson's French-onion chip dip (one of Cleveland's great, guilty pleasures) surely makes them so. Alternatively, dig into a mess o' pigs' ears or tails (each $7), confit'd, deep fried and drenched in hot sauce, like a luscious twist on Buffalo wings.
Whatever you eat, save room for the mostly Midwestern-inspired sides ($6 each). With the exception of some average greens, this collection of salads and starches is full of well-conceived tidbits that refresh the palate and arouse the senses. Among our top choices are the sassy, sit-up-and-take-notice smoked beet salad with horseradish and scallions; the buttery spaetzle with spicy braised cabbage; and the crunchy, dill-inflected broccoli salad dotted with smoked peanuts and dried cherries. Then there's the chunky, ultra-crisp J.W. Potatoes (named for nationally renowned chef — and Symon mentor — Jonathan Waxman), which Symon rightly calls "the best damn fried potatoes ever."
For dessert, there's pudding ($6). We could have used a bit more citrus tang in the Key lime version, but the rich chocolate edition, made with Valrhona 70-percent dark chocolate and topped with toffee popcorn, left us smiling.
Cleveland barbecue: Welcome to the world.