Pig roasts, if you haven't heard, are the hottest thing in backyard blowouts. As evidence of barbecue's ballooning popularity, caterer Scott Slagle offers this nugget: "Five years ago there were 100,000 contestants taking part in barbecue competitions across the nation. Last year that number rose to 400,000."
It's irrelevant whether those figures are accurate — anyone can see the steady uptick in barbecue-themed restaurants, catering companies, and cable television shows. That doesn't surprise Slagle, who for the past decade has operated the Solon-based catering company Now We're Cooking. "Barbecue is wholesome homestyle comfort food," he says.
All this was enough motivation for Slagle and partner Walter Hyde to open Fat Casual BBQ in Macedonia in October. The name is a fitting twist on the phrase "fast casual," as it accurately describes the operation. Though barbecue is one of the most time-consuming creations around, it's all done ahead of time, meaning you don't have to wait.
While Slagle was running his catering company, Hyde was manning the stoves everywhere from Swingo's and Giovanni's to the Crazy Horse. Their casual eatery is in a Plain-Jane building reminiscent of the South's great roadside barbecue joints. Tables are topped with the familiar red-and-white-checked plastic, and accessorized with paper towel dispensers and barbecue sauce in squeeze bottles. Ordering is done at the kitchen counter.
Because Ohio doesn't claim its own distinctive 'cue style, Slagle decided to bring together regional tastes from across the country. Texas is represented by beef brisket, the Carolinas by pork, the Southwest by smoked sausage, and Memphis by dry-rubbed ribs. Plus, Fat Casual offers about a half-dozen housemade sauces. Fans of Carolina-style 'cue, for instance, will reach for the tangy mustard-based variety, while beef brisket eaters might opt for the robust and spicy Texas gravy. Memphis-style barbecue sauce is what we typically see at rib cook-offs — sweet, thick, and mildly spicy. Fat Casual's house brew is mellow and sweet, featuring Ohio honey.
But don't expect your ribs to come slathered in sauce. Hyde treats barbecue sauce like a fine-dining chef treats a demi-glaze: as a garnish rather than the main component. "We don't want to hide the flavor of the meat," Hyde says. "Sauce, like smoke, is just an ingredient. The meat always has to come first." Plus, he wants diners to be able to see the pink smoke ring, a sign of barbecue done right.
Besides, with meat this good, it would be a crime to overpower it with sauce. After spending 12 hours in the smoker, the thin-sliced brisket is meltingly tender, profoundly beefy, and not overly smoky. Whole turkey breasts get eight hours in the pit, resulting in some of the finest deli meat in town. Fat Casual ignores ubiquitous pulled pork in favor of lean shaved pork loin, and diners likely won't miss a thing. Flecks of red pepper in the house-smoked beef sausage are a clue that the links have heat, but they hardly portend the amazing flavor to come.
Fans of flabby fall-off-the-bone ribs may not appreciate the meaty tug of Fat Casual's St. Louis-style ribs ($9.99/half, $17.99/full). But that's only because non-barbecue restaurants have misled diners, says Hyde. "People are used to the tenderness that comes from boiling ribs," he explains. "But that process also boils out the flavor. That's why they have to cover them up with big sauces." Our only complaint with the ribs: the papery silverskin on the underside of the bones.
Platters come in Snack ($6.99), Dinner ($13.99), Family ($24.99), and Pit Boss ($36.99) sizes, featuring various quantities, meat combinations, and side dishes. Those sides include zesty chili, creamy mac and cheese, baked beans, cole slaw, cornbread, and uniquely delicious sweet potato salad, served warm with bacon and onion. Some platters include sliced mini pretzel buns that are perfect for building sandwiches with sliced meat.
Of course, smoking barbecue can be done at home, but the results rarely match those of the pros. That's why we need places like Fat Casual: They do it right so we don't have to.
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