When an article I wrote on a tiny barbecue/hot dog stand in Lakewood called The Gorilla ran in early spring, the response was swift and strong. Illustrated with a food-porn pic of a smoked beef brisket slider called the Prime King, all drippy with horseradish cream sauce, the short news item racked up thousands of hits in no time. One frustrated visitor who had made the trip after reading the piece tweeted out a picture of a hand-scribbled sign in the window that read “Bobo’s is sold out.” (FYI: Bobo’s Smokin BBQ is no longer part of the Gorilla but they promise to resurface somewhere and sometime soon.)
One can never accurately predict which stories will resonate with the readers, but it's safe to assume that so-called hidden gem places like Bobo's will strike a chord with the food-obsessed masses. I've experienced similar responses to articles I've written on burgers, tacos, pupusas, falafel, oxtail stew, Cubano sandwiches and Asian noodle soups, to name a few. Discovering joints like these is always a thrill, and unearthing them is a bit of an obsession, a nice diversion from the usual two-meals-and-done weekly reviews.
You'd think I get "hot tips" from readers all the time, but, chalk it up to human nature, most people only reach out when they're pissed off about something. Don't believe me? Take a gander at the comment section of any online publication. The point I'm trying to make is, it's surprising how infrequently readers offer up suggestions to places I'm unfamiliar with. Even new owners, sidetracked with the endless challenges of opening a business, rarely reach out.
My own personal discovery process usually boils down to a combination of tactics that range from friendly tips to lucky discoveries. Barroom ramblings, rattled off when the sun is low but hunger is high, often lead to notebook-worthy leads worth tracking down in the light of day.
New, old or something in between, these off-the-trodden-path places might be familiar to some but they generally are not familiar to many.
Surely some local food scribe had devoted a few lines of prose to the infamous Ruby Burger, I assumed, which has been the specialty of the "house" at the shabby Payne Café for some time. But after a friend who works in the area talked it up I found no mention of it in the foodie firmament, so off I went for lunch. Like most great "finds," the success of any story relies on intangible nuggets of color above and beyond the food. In the case of a day-drinking dive where the owner pours drinks with one hand while flipping burgers with the other, well, there's no shortage of color.
I owe a debt of thanks to the pal who tipped me off to the oxtail stew at tiny Ocho Rios, a Jamaican joint in South Collinwood. The dish – and pretty much everything else served here – blew me away, so I was flabbergasted that the place was a virtual digital media ghost despite the fact that the place had been open for about six months. Of course, the weathered façade doesn't foster much confidence, but I've been to enough Jamaican shops to know that one should never judge a jerk by its cover.
One of my all-time favorite reporter experiences landed me in a back-alley tortilla-making factory where a giant Rube Goldberg-like contraption spit out a continuous stream of warm and fragrant corn tortillas. The minority-owned food startup had recently launched, selling only to a handful of Mexican groceries and restaurants, including Orale Mexican foods stand in the West Side Market. In fact, it was owner Roberto Rodriguez who tipped me off to the product and the operation. The business, La Bamba Tortilleria, has since expanded and relocated.
I have a sort of directive that guides my discovery process. The farther away something is, the more unique it needs to be to get me there. That's why I was in no hurry to drive across town to a small Middle Eastern place, hardly a rarity in Cleveland. But at the urging of a food-obsessed friend I made the trip to Café Falafel near the Fairview Hospital, where I found Cleveland's best falafel, proving once again that surprise waits around every bend.
It's not just hole-in-the-wall spots that grab and hold my attention. When I first reached out to the people behind Choolaah Indian BBQ, they told me the same thing they told every other reporter who had been watching the lengthy construction unfold: Thanks, but we're not ready to talk. And why would they? More than five years in the planning, the genre-bending concept still was undergoing final tweaks when I approached the owners for a scoop. In the end, after multiple visits and a lengthy exclusive, the owners credited the published piece as an invaluable asset that helped clear up misconceptions about the restaurant and help get them off to a strong start.
A similar thing happened after I wrote about the delectable fried chicken at V's Gourmet over on Lakeshore Blvd. When it comes to fried chicken, being told that there will be a wait is a very good thing. It usually means that the chicken will be fried to order. That's definitely the drill here, where even those wise enough to call ahead end up twiddling their thumbs. But the result is quite possibly the best fried chicken in the city. I heard from plenty of converts after I mentioned the place, and a during visit by some Scene staff members, the owners said they were tickled with new customers that had made the trip based on our recommendation.
Almost as much fun as shining a bright light on a promising new spot or overlooked outpost is hearing how well the destination is doing in the wake of the press. Too bad that only happens once in a blue moon because, as we already discussed, most people only reach out when they're pissed off about something.