When he isn't busy crisscrossing the country visiting legendary barbecue joints for the Food Network show Burgers, Brew and 'Que, Michael Symon is obsessing over the particulars of his own barbecue joint: Mabel's. It's been a year and a half since the Iron Chef first revealed his plans to open a "Cleveland-style" barbecue restaurant on East Fourth Street, but only now are the final pieces falling into place.
With hiring for the downtown restaurant set to begin in the coming weeks, we decided to check in with Symon and his team to see what we can expect when the hotly anticipated new concept finally debuts this winter.
The major delay in opening, we learned, can be pinned on two main issues: the fact that the space, formerly La Strada, had to be completely gutted and rebuilt, and the smokers that Symon insisted upon were a nightmare to incorporate into the plans.
"One of the reasons it's taken so long is getting the smokers that we want in that space," Symon says, referring to the twin fire engine-red rigs that will feed his insatiable fans. "The best places that I went to — whether it was in KC, Nashville, Austin, Lockhart, pick a place — the one thing they all had in common is they cook with live fire from beginning to end."
While state of the art, the heavy-duty smokers are genuine "stick burners," meaning they rely solely on blazing hardwood for heat and smoke as opposed to those that employ wood pellets and supplemental heat sources like electric or gas. Emerging from these beauties will be brisket, beef ribs, pork spareribs, turkey breast, lamb ribs and chicken, all with a style unique to Cleveland.
"The coolest thing that I've seen more than anything is that all these guys have their own distinct style," says Symon. "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."
One thing that Symon experienced time and time again in the nation's best barbecue joints, but will not adopt, is the cafeteria-style service so prevalent in the genre. Mabel's will be a full-service restaurant, which makes perfect sense when you think about it.
"Most of the places that do cafeteria-style are in warm climates, so to queue a line out the door is not a big deal," the chef says. "Having a line of customers run down East Fourth Street in the dead of winter doesn't work."
The restaurant will seat about 100 guests at the bar, in the main dining room, and on a mezzanine. Starters range from smoked peanuts and pork rinds to crispy pig ears and tails. Signature sandwiches include the Mr. Beef, with brisket, onion and pickles, the Big Pig, stuffed with pulled pork, cracklins and slaw, and of course a Polish Boy, Cleveland's famous kielbasa sammie piled high with fries, slaw and sauce.
Almost as much consideration has been devoted to the beverage program as to the food program. Current Lola GM Nolan Cleary, who will shift into that role at Mabel's, says the plan all along was to select beer, wine and cocktails that complement smoked meats.
"The alcohol in high-gravity beers [like IPAs] doesn't play really well with the spiciness of barbecue," he notes, adding that diners will see plenty of crisp Belgians, German-style pilsners and "lawnmower beer" in cans. "High-acid white wines and full-bodied, fruity reds lend themselves to barbecue."
The concise wine list will feature pours like Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner and some nice chilled Lambrusco, while 24 tap handles, large-format bottles and "some really cool cans" will round out the beer selection.
Developing the booze portion of the menu is longtime Symon staffer David Earle, who, when not pouring cocktails at Lola or Lolita, is researching and writing about them in a scholarly manner.
"The cocktail plan as I envision it plays with Low Country, Southern culinary culture, but elevating it a little bit," he explains. "It's going to be high-concept but ultimately accessible so that it will complement the barbecue and play well with Mike's own whimsical attitudes about cooking."
Bourbon is going to have a high profile, naturally, with a generous selection of whiskeys that span the range of flavor profiles, from high-rye and high-corn to "wheaters" or wheated bourbons. Earle doesn't shun "bottom-shelf" whiskeys, leaving plenty of room for classics like Old Crow, Mellow Corn, Ezra Brooks, J.T.S. Brown and Old Overholt. Just for fun there will be Sazerac snow cones and batch-made cocktails with tableside presentation.
Moonshines will be used in cocktails like a seasonal shrub; a weekly boilermaker will pair a shot and a beer; and the monthly classic cocktail will be like the B-side of booze history. "I have drink books dating back to 1862; this classic cocktail is not going to be one that you've heard of before," says Earle.
For Symon, the wait has been long but it hasn't managed to diminish his enthusiasm.
"I'm more excited about it now than ever," he says. "The more I travel, the more I see, the more I know how ours is going to stand up, the more excited I get. Doing real-deal barbecue is going to be fun."