People will drive almost anywhere to eat great barbecue – even Solon. That's where the low-and-slow gurus who ran Fat Casual ended up after a year and a half of road construction finally did in their Macedonia shop. For a little over two years, that odd, out-of-the-way restaurant with the peculiar name attracted anybody with wheels and a penchant for slow-smoked meats.
Now the guys – Walter Hyde and Scott Slagle – operate from a roomy suburban sports bar called Tavern of Solon, which is crammed into the back corner of a strip mall like a pair of undies in the socks drawer. No matter: barbecue fans have endured far worse to wrap their sauce-slathered mitts around a meaty rack of St. Louis ribs.
"I'm from Solon, born and raised," Slagle told me. "There are so many chains now in the area; we're trying to bring back that old-school independent feel of a local restaurant."
The response has been nothing short of unmanageable – literally. One night there, after taking considerable time to strategize our meal for four, our server shot down a full third of our selections. "We're out of the baby back ribs, out of the brisket, out of the mac and cheese," she informed us. It was 8 p.m.
That brisket has been more elusive than fresh snipe. Attempts on two other occasions netted a big, fat platter of nothing. Fortunately – and unfortunately – I've had it before, back at Fat Casual, so I know what I'm missing. After a quiet 12-hour slumber in the smoker, the thin-sliced brisket is rendered meltingly tender, profoundly beefy, and not overly smoky.
"We need to stop making it so delicious," Hyde joked when he heard of my failed attempts to secure the parcel. At last count, he said, the restaurant was selling roughly 700 brisket sandwiches a weekend – and that doesn't include brisket dinners. In all seriousness, he added, the kitchen needs to get a better handle on inventory so diners aren't snubbed at the table.
We certainly didn't starve. In fact, we left with roughly 10 pounds of leftovers. When the server dropped off our Porkchos ($12) – the restaurant's version of nachos – I swear our table buckled beneath the weight of it. Assembled atop the world's largest pizza pan, the multi-layered spread includes tortilla chips, a few kinds of cheese, a few pounds of pulled pork, and just enough barbecue sauce. It is the best version of nachos in Cleveland.
That pulled pork – available in a sandwich ($6) or as part of a dinner ($14) – is a not-so-subtle reminder that what passes as pulled pork at most places is not barbecue. Unlike those puddles of long-simmered mush, this pork has glorious bits of char and bark that add texture and depth to the meat. Sweet, smoky and sublime, this is how pork is done.
As a substitute for brisket, our server suggested the glazed ham, which would have been funny if it wasn't so upsetting. But we ordered it anyway, and I can now admit that while no substitute for brisket, it is a revelation nonetheless. Encased in a ring of pork crackling, the naturally sweet and juicy meat actually tastes of pork as opposed to that preternaturally hued stuff that appears round holiday time.
Fans of fall-off-the-bone ribs will be disappointed by the Tavern's St. Louis-style ribs ($10/$18). That's because they're smoked, not boiled or steamed like most joints that have no business making and selling them. Heck, even the turkey's good here, as is the zesty beef sausage.
Chicken wings ($6/$10) start out in the smoker and end up in the fryer, leaving them just-plain delicious. Fans of fried pickles ($6) will love the version dished up here, a juicy-tangy-crunchy basket of fun. And thanks to a really flavorful provolone, the breaded and fried cheese appetizer ($6) tastes better than it should.
The best part about the move to a sports bar, of course, is the booze; barbecue just tastes better with cold beer (though I could do without the 1,000 televisions).
If you're a fan of good barbecue, you'll have to plug Solon into your Google map app. And when you get there, please grab me some brisket (if they have any left).