He hoped for nothing more than a place where beer geeks could gather, sample world-class brews (his included), and maybe down some light fare in the company of like-minded hops-heads. But he had tried that approach at the Brewkeeper, his former brewery in Bedford Heights, and it hadn't worked out. And when he moved the brewing ops to Cleveland's West Boulevard neighborhood last year, there was no room to serve food.
But then the former Titanic Ristorante became available, on Lakewood's Madison Avenue. It was roomy and conveniently located, and came complete with a patio and a basement for future expansion. The potential was irresistible. Together with his dad, Bob, and chef and business partner Brian Davis, Wright snapped up the property. He painted the walls and ceiling a dark, pub-y red and built a broad, sinuous bar, saving room for more than two dozen kegs and 27 tap markers.
The Buckeye Beer Engine opened in mid-March, just in time for Saint Paddy's Day, and has been purring ever since. And those beer geeks? Elbow to elbow at the bar, working their way through the remarkable roundup of top-quality drafts -- a collection that Wright describes as "breakouts, hot stuff, and things you've never seen before in your life."
Better still, the selection, including rare Belgian lambics, cask-conditioned ales, and three or four of Wright's own brews, gets rotated regularly, giving beer lovers an excuse to drop in time and again. (The namesake, "beer engine," comes from an old-time contraption used to pump naturally carbonated ale out of firkins. And yes, Wright makes use of one on the premises.)
Against this suds-centric backdrop, the food was at first an afterthought. "We figured burgers would go good with beer, and that was about all the thought we gave to it in the beginning," Wright says.
But Clevelanders, God bless 'em, love to eat. And while beer sales still trump the food, the eats are catching up fast.
That couldn't suit Chef Brian better. His tiny kitchen lacks space for even an oven, and his repertoire is mostly limited to that which can be grilled on the flattop or plopped in the deep fryer. He manages to crank out a surprisingly large array of respectable eats. True, many items, including the shoestring fries, are frozen, and the tender pulled pork is poured out of a bag. But Davis has devoted himself to finding high-quality products. And within the limitations imposed by the kitchen's setup, he does a commendable job.
While the focus is gussied-up burgers -- fresh half-pounders on soft, sturdy buns, topped with everything from pierogi and sour cream (the West Side Burger) to applewood-smoked bacon and goat cheese (the Tuscan Burger) -- there's plenty more to consider. Among starters, for instance, homemade soups are full of tongue-tingling grace, including the sleek, subtly sweet cheddar-ale version and the smooth, slightly spicy tomato bisque, generously topped with crumbled blue cheese and humming with garden-fresh flavor.
Crunchy little "beer caps" -- beer-battered, deep-fried jalapeño slices served with spicy chipotle ranch sauce -- may be a frozen product, but that doesn't prevent them from being profoundly, even embarrassingly, addictive. Likewise, the hefty frozen "hog wings" -- lean, meaty, and precisely trimmed pork shanks that you can eat with your fingers, like ribs -- are cooked to a tender turn, then slathered with sauce and served with celery and blue-cheese dressing.
Davis also has included a number of options that, while not exactly health food, will still appeal to the meat-free crowd: veggie baskets, breaded and fried pickle spears, a cheese tray, a portobello hoagie, and spicy, homemade black-bean patties. (A black-bean patty can be substituted for the beef in any of the kitchen's burgers.)
While the frozen fries are strictly average, homemade chips are light and crisp. Freshly made coleslaw, spiked with crumbled blue cheese, is a sweet-and-salty delight. And an enormous chop salad -- a pleasing mix of torn iceberg and romaine topped with crumbled bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, blue-cheese bits, tomato, and cucumber, in a mellow blue-cheese dressing -- could stand up to any bowl of bunny food in town.
A handful of entrées wraps up the menu, including meatloaf, pot roast, a smokehouse sampler with beef brisket, pulled pork, and "hog wing." There's also the more-than-passable take on fish & chips, with three ample wedges of beer-battered perch, plenty of homemade chips, the veggie du jour, and that blue-cheese slaw.
As food sales continue to grow, look for even more options. Davis says he's already adding to the menu grilled chicken sandwiches, stir-fries, more salads, and a Kobe beef hot dog in a pretzel-bread bun.
No, Garin Wright never yearned to open a restaurant. But beer lovers -- and their food-lovin' buddies -- should raise a glass anyway.
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