Still, we need our fix of pleasant weather. And if Ma Nature isn't putting out, it's time to go searching for some first-rate 'cue -- that inspired confluence of smoke, meat, and heat that can make even a wintry Ohio evening feel like a midsummer night's dream.
Fortunately, we don't have to go far to find it. Former NFL defensive end Al "Bubba" Baker may claim he's dishing up ribs, brisket, and pulled pork at Bubba Q's, his friendly Avon pit stop, but in reality, what's coming out of those applewood-fired smokers is nothing less than summer -- slow-cooked, sauce-slathered, and sided with a stack of fries.
To score the full effect, forget about chowing down in Baker's airy, high-ceilinged main dining room, with its sports memorabilia collection. Sure, it's fun to take an up-close gander at LeBron's jersey -- that thing is huge! -- and to check out the nearly 20 years' worth of newspaper clippings documenting Baker's transition from gridiron star to pit boss. But with the Browns pennants, plasma TVs, and wall clock/scoreboard, the vibe is more likely to conjure up crisp autumn afternoons than sultry southern summers.
For that experience, head out to the rear porch, where you can settle in at one of the sturdy picnic tables and gnaw your bones to the beat of the blues thumping in the background. Rustic and spare, this room must be prime real estate on a hot July evening, when it opens onto a large, mini-light-festooned patio. But even in the frosty March twilight, when the patio is barren and plastic sheeting shields the porch from winter's winds, the effect is salutary: A crackling fire and radiant heaters disperse the chill, while comestibles like freshly baked cornmeal muffins, dense mac 'n' cheese, and sweet iced tea deliver warm thoughts of meals consumed south of the Mason-Dixon Line. (The eatery just snared a full liquor license too.)
It doesn't hurt, either, that the homemade food is almost uniformly above average. This comes as no surprise, since Baker and his wife, Sabrina, have been running a successful catering biz for nearly two decades. And while their first sit-down restaurant on Shaker Square folded in 1997, the year-old Avon digs appear to be a huge hit with its exurban clientele; at 5 p.m. on a frigid Saturday, the wait for a table was already 20 minutes long.
Like the man himself, Baker's menu is a big'un, with everything from soup and salads to burgers, grilled salmon, and several deftly prepared seafood specials, including an impressive fried-seafood platter, stocked with crunchy shrimp, mild perch, and walleye, and a plump, meaty knockout of a crab cake, with hush puppies on the side. Clearly, though, Bubba's heart belongs to barbecue -- specifically ribs (both tender baby-backs and the larger, more flavorful St. Louis style), along with pulled pork, pulled beef brisket, and smoked chicken -- and the 'cue shows up in various guises.
Take the southern fries, for instance, topped with melted mozzarella, bacon crumbs, and a satiny slather of sleek pulled pork or brisket; or the rich, well-rounded homemade chili, beefed up with ground meat and a bit of brisket.
Among the starters are the scrumptious chicken wings; although we've had bigger, their crisp exteriors and buttery interiors are far from disappointing. Still, the "Buffalo" style wings seem mild almost to a fault, with a bare minimum of Tabasco-fueled firepower, and the barbecue-sauced wings aren't saucy enough, at least for our tastes.
In fact, Bubba often seems to be a little stingy with his sauce. There's none set on the tables (the ubiquitous red squeeze bottles contain only ketchup), only the ribs come with sauce on the side, and ask for extra sauce -- say, to gussy up the southern fries -- and the server delivers a mere tablespoon or two, measured into a tiny bowl. Not only is this apparent cost-cutting a bit surprising, but considering that Baker sells four or five varieties of sauce by the bottle at the takeout counter, it also means he's missing a tremendous marketing opportunity.
Still, in sinking our teeth into the St. Louis ribs -- succulent, appropriately saucy, and laced with savory char -- any quibbles are quickly forgotten; these meaty marvels are absolutely flawless. Nearly as good are Bubba's patent-pending boneless baby-back ribs, deboned by a secret process and tender enough to cut with a fork.
Meals start with mini cornmeal muffins and rich, buttery yeast rolls, and include a choice of two sides. Crisp homemade coleslaw, cinnamon-scented baked beans, and fresh (not canned) green beans are all first-rate. We like the relatively firm, reasonably cheesy mac 'n' cheese too, although a bone-sucking companion complains it can't compare to his Gullah grandma's version. Tender, properly astringent -- but not bitter -- collard greens prove a good choice too. But pass on the optional sweet-potato fries: Dry and mealy, they don't merit their 50-cent surcharge.
On the other hand, classic lemon meringue pie is worth every penny, like a sunbeam on a plate. And not a moment too soon, at that.