"Where were all these people eating yesterday," asks my wife as we enter Fat Head's Brewery.
It's a common refrain we share when we stumble upon a congregation of humanity so legion that it truly boggles the mind. On most nights, we find ourselves in sparsely populated dining rooms scattered about town. But here was a building so packed with people that, if tipped over, would literally fill a dozen or more of those quiet bistros.
Texas has nothing on Fat Head's, an operation so vast it makes Hofbräuhaus seem intimate by comparison. The first thing that strikes a person – apart from the vertigo – is the one-two punch of wood smoke and hops, an exceptionally pleasing aroma that conjures beer-soaked backyard barbecues. Despite a 260-seat dining room, the host estimates the wait for a table will be 45 minutes to an hour. And this is on a Tuesday, in Middleburg Heights. (Weekday lunches are far speedier.)
Waits here aren't so bad, though. For starters there's the fresh-brewed beer, dispensed from a mile-long bar that runs parallel to a sturdy drink rail with plenty of elbow room. Better yet, take that beer "to go" as you experience the self-guided brewery tour. This interesting little expedition winds past windows offering views of the bottling line, quality control lab, and even a glimpse of owner-brewer Matt Cole tinkering with the smaller pilot brewhouse. Of course, you don't have to move an inch to observe the main brewery that commands an entire wall.
Finding oneself at Fat Head's at the tail end of the hop harvest is like waking up in Alba, Italy during white truffle season. On tap is Hop Stalker ($6.25), an IPA that was wet-hopped with sticky-icky nuggets that Cole himself selected in Washington's Yakima Valley. Sipping the just-tapped elixir is as close to craft-beer nirvana a beer snob can get. Owing to delays getting the smaller system operational there were only eight house brews available. They were joined by a handful of guest beers, but the taproom was still well shy of the 30-draft capacity.
If you've been to the 10-year-old brewpub in North Olmsted, you have a good idea of what to expect in terms of food. But there are a couple notable and noteworthy additions. Already popular items like the meaty smokehouse wings are greatly improved by a pit stop over the live-fire wood grill, leaving them blissfully kissed by both smoke and flame. I also don't recall seeing Alabama White sauce over there (or anywhere) as a slather on a trio of whole wings ($7), leaving them tangy, milky and glistening.
That same wood-fired grill does wonders for the selection of jaw-busting burgers that come dressed with all sorts of creative toppers. The Kinda Blue ($13) stars a seductive bacon jam and blue cheese combo, while the Red, Hot and Blue ($13) brings a spicy crunch to every bite thanks to fried onion straws and zingy wing sauce. Like pretty much everything in the joint, the buns are ginormous, throwing the meat-to-bread ratio out of whack.
When it isn't cranking out an endless supply of wings, a massive hardwood-fueled smoker turns out items like pulled pork, beef brisket, half chickens and top round, but most of that food is earmarked for appetizers, sandwiches and those iconic Headwiches. Only three "smokehouse specialties" appear on the menu – chicken, ribs and a bone-in pork chop – and those are available only after 5 p.m. The St. Louis ribs ($15 half rack, $23 full rack) arrive smoky, meaty and flavorful, handled well from smoker to grill to table. The pork chop ($14) was clearly smoked, but it was also cotton-dry and disappointing.
Foods are served on craft paper-lined trays, a practice that's fine for chicken wings or nachos but ruinous for items (like pork chops) that require slicing. Moments into the process the paper was reduced to confetti that clung to the food like nettlesome lint. Those entrees come with a choice of two sides that include baked beans, hand-cut fries, potato salad and mac and cheese.
Seeking out dishes that feature barbecue often proved rewarding. The poutine ($12) is a mountain of fries, shredded brisket and cheese curds all smothered in a ridiculously rich gravy made from beef drippings. Spice-rubbed smoked chicken stole the show in the smokehouse nachos ($12), an intimidating payload of chips, cheddar cheese sauce, jalapeños and cilantro. BBQ also finds its way into a cheesesteak made with smoked, shaved top round, a Reuben starring house-smoked pastrami and many other items.
As far as comfort goes, the bulk of the seating is on unforgiving hardwood and steel high-tops, benches and stools. And given the dimensions of the room, it's no surprise that the noise level is closer to that of Grand Central than it is the Rose Reading Room. But for craft beer and pub food fans, this highly conspicuous destination is the ultimate crowd pleaser.