Mike Griffin already had done so much work to prepare for the opening of Proof, his barbecue restaurant in Tremont, but one final hurdle remained. Despite the fact that it was the dead of winter, the owner was scrambling to complete a spacious patio and bar. A concrete pad was poured, a tall, sturdy fence erected and natural gas lines snaked to accommodate future outdoor heat sources. And finish it he did, just in time for opening day. But then the pandemic landed, slamming the brakes on a restaurant project literally years in the making.
“It sucked the life right out of us,” Griffin confessed.
But here we are, all these months later, and the scene is one of carefree enjoyment. The restaurant ultimately made its debut in May, and tonight that 100-seat patio (now 50 seats thanks to distancing) is at capacity, a queue of hopeful diners waits for open tables and the owner finally is able to utter a sigh of relief.
“Thank god for this patio,” he said. “Without it, I don’t know what we would do.”
The pandemic was just another in a long line of trials that Proof has endured since it first was conceived some four years back. The restaurant is situated in the lower level of the tree-story building that is home to Visible Voice Books and Crust Pizza, which Griffin also owns. In normal times, Proof would be described as clubby, intimate and stylish, with room for about 55 guests in a brick-lined basement space with windows that look out and up to the sidewalk. Now, thanks to social distancing, more than half of those precious seats are gone.
It’s noteworthy to point out that Tremont, in spite of being regarded as one of the city’s brightest culinary corners, has lacked a barbecue joint. That was one of the motivating factors behind Griffin’s decision to pursue the niche. He had help crafting and perfecting the recipes from consulting chef Pete Joyce, who sadly passed away last month. In the wake of his untimely departure, his fabulous food remains.
A sturdy Southern Pride smoker planted on the rear patio turns out meats like brisket, pulled pork, pork belly and chicken, all slow-smoked over fruit wood. In true smokehouse fashion, those items are sold by the pound and half-pound and paired with pickles, onions, cornbread and a choice of sides. But those foods also arrive in the form of nachos, steamed buns, tacos and sandwiches.
Even buried as it was beneath a layer of melted smoked cheddar, the smoked pork in the pulled pork nachos ($9) displayed ebony bits of crusty bark. This is no crock-pot braised pork – you know the type: saucy, soft and smoke-free – but instead meaty, faintly sweet, aromatic and complex. That smoked pork shoulder is great on its own and, I’m guessing, in a sandwich, but its true calling might be in nacho form. Threads and chunks of tender meat are piled onto a bed of thin, salty tortilla chips and capped with queso, salsa verde, fried onions and shaved scallions.
When you start with meats like 14-hour smoked brisket ($14), juicy smoked chicken ($12) and that delicious pulled pork ($12), you end up with killer tacos. Large portions of those flavorful meats are folded into tortillas along with cheese, salsa, slaw and meat-appropriate sauces. They come three to an order.
Proof offers an impressive selection of sauces – I counted seven – to pair with the smoked meats. They range from a thick, smoky and sweet KC-style to a classic Carolina elixir that is thin, bright and tangy. There’s also a chunky cherry and bourbon flavored sauce, Latin-spiced roja and blistering house hot sauce.
Barbecue purists should opt for the build-your-own platters ($16), which combine the meats of one’s choosing with various sides, sauces and garnishes. Proof is making some of the best smoked pork belly around, a process that renders much of the fat, leaving succulent slabs of sweet belly meat. The brisket is well-seasoned, appropriately beefy, melt-in-your-mouth tender and pleasantly (but not aggressively) smoky. The meats are joined by pickles, onions and choice of two sides from options such as cornbread, mac and cheese, baked beans and slaw.
Barbecue and bourbon go hand-in-hand and Proof will satisfy whiskey enthusiasts who prefer theirs neat or in cocktails. Drinks run $8 and include a balanced New Fashioned starring Four Roses and a Kentucky Mule that gets its kick from George Dickel rye.
In terms of foods to order for pick-up and delivery, few items travel as well as barbecue. A general rule of thumb states that the longer it takes to cook something, the longer it will hold up in transit. Slow-smoked ‘cue, I’m looking at you.
2258 Professor Ave., Cleveland