This month doesn’t just signal the end of a year; it also marks the culmination of a decade, one that has been jam-packed with meals good, bad and forgettable. The dishes that follow managed to leave an indelible mark, rising above countless others to earn a spot on this list.
A couple friends and I were entertaining a bigwig writer who was visiting Cleveland for work. I’ll never forget the look on his face when that giant beef rib landed with a thud on our table at Mabel’s BBQ. Not only was it impressive to behold, it was sheer rapture to eat: a beef bomb on a bone that fell apart with little more than a wayward glance. Gentle smoke gives way to a peppery bite followed by melt-in-your-mouth beef goodness.
I had driven to El Rinconcito Chapin, a Central American eatery in Old Brooklyn, specifically for the pupusas, but I walked away a fan of the glorious garnachas. An order nets you a half-dozen stacks built atop thick silver dollar-size tortillas. Each is topped with a mound of shredded beef, a dollop of bright salsa, a few rings of raw onion and a sprinkling of salty cheese.
A decade ago I drove down to Barberton, Ohio — the “Fried Chicken Capital of America” — to sample the local specialty. That specialty, of course, is Barberton-style chicken, one of the best things a human can eat. Places like the timeless Belgrade Gardens and White House Chicken turn out platters of exquisite fried chicken, cooked always in lard and paired with coleslaw, fries and “hot sauce,” which curiously is neither hot nor sauce.
It wasn’t until Szechuan Gourmet opened up at Tink Holl grocery that I found a place in my life for tofu. What forever changed my mind was the mapo tofu at this Asia Town eatery, a dish so compelling addictive and incendiary that you forget all about meat. The citrusy zing and intriguing numbness of Sichuan peppercorns combined with the no-joke heat of dried red chilies is the yin and yang that you’ve been missing.
Creole and Cajun food barely has a presence in Cleveland, and that’s a shame given the vibrant qualities of this melting-pot cuisine. There might be no better representative dish in town than the crawfish etouffee served at Battiste & Dupree Cajun Grill in South Euclid, where a spicy, silky roux-thickened gravy is loaded with sweet tail meat and ladled around a mound of white rice and showered with green onions.
We’re blessed in Cleveland with no shortage of authentic wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza, but I’ll never forget that first Sunnyside Pizza from Bar Cento. By topping an uber-thin crust with salty prosciutto, soft-cooked eggs, melty provolone and cracked black pepper, this Ohio City enoteca essentially changed the rules of the pizza game.
Mornings are for suckers, but there’s one dish in town that makes breakfast bearable: the biscuits and gravy at Big Al’s Diner. While everybody else in the room is naively tucking into plates of corned beef hash, discerning diners are slicing into runny eggs to spill that liquid sunshine onto sausage-gravy soaked biscuits. On the side is a hill of onion-spiked hash browns.
You could serve up an old shoe on that enchanting back patio at L’Albatros and it would still be one of the best meals of the summer. So imagine what it’s like to eat something truly ethereal: a selection of perfectly ripe cheeses. There is no better cheese board in town, and there’s no better place to enjoy it — inside or out — than at this University Circle brasserie.
Superior Pho did not invent pho, nor did it shepherd its arrival in Cleveland. But it was the first slurp shop wholly dedicated to the genre, thus elevating the dish from ancillary menu item to star of the show. Many bowls have come in its wake, most of them delicious, but this one will always be the paradigm.
As long as there’s Ginko, we’ll all be okay. Sit down at this Tokyo-style sushi bar in Tremont, order the omakase, and you too will stop lamenting the state of Cleveland sushi. The freshest possible fish is handled with care and served up in a multi-course feast that will have you returning in short order.
Five of the Best Things We Ate This Decade That You Can’t Get Anymore
As far as “failed experiments” go, the Menu Bianco at Trentina was nothing short of a culinary triumph. This 15-course tasting menu, prepared by some of the city’s top talent, took diners on the gustatory ride of their life. Those open to adventure were rewarded with mind-blowingly good antipasti, pasta, seafood and wood-fired meats that didn’t merely push boundaries but annihilated them.
From the moment it opened its doors in the wake of Lola’s relocation, Lolita carried on the tradition as Tremont’s most beloved bistro. And while many stellar dishes come to mind — Big Board, fried smelts, pancetta-wrapped monkfish — it’s the Lola Burger I miss the most. Those dreamy late-night happy hours, when that bacon, egg and cheese-topped burger on a muffin cost just $5, are a little bit of irretrievable Cleveland eats history.
I can’t say with a straight face that the Slaw Dog at Steve’s Lunch was anything approaching wholesome food, but it sure did hit the spot after a big night out. We lost this iconic spot to fire five years ago, but memories of those all-beef wienies with chili sauce and chip-chopped coleslaw will never fade.
One of the saddest consequences of losing the Katz Club Diner (apart from losing the adjoining Bar Car) was saying goodbye to the Chicken a la King. Like a free-form chicken pot pie, the updated classic featured a creamy gravy of chicken and veggies ladled over fluffy waffles. Making the dish extra special was the fact that the comfort food employed the “oysters,” which come two to a bird.
Few dishes manage to tickle all of the senses the way the Reuben Ribs at Cork & Cleaver did. This science experiment turned instant classic consisted of bone-in pork ribs that were cured corned beef-style and paired with Thousand Island-dressed slaw, grated Gruyere and a sprinkle of rye salt. When eaten in concert, the dish summoned the unmistakable flavors of a Reuben sandwich.