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The Best Things We Ate in Cleveland in 2016 

A dining critic's notebook

click to enlarge Chickenrones at the Plum

Photo by Emanuel Wallace

Chickenrones at the Plum

As I look back over my soup-stained notes from the past 12 months of eating my way through Cleveland, these are the items that stand out the most. When it comes to "last meal" dishes, any of these will do for me, thanks.

Giant Beef Rib at Mabel's BBQ

I'll never forget my first "giant beef rib" at Mabel's. The 2-pound, bone-in beast landed on the table with a thud, the meat so tender that it jiggled like Jell-O. Slow-smoked until it was tender enough to eat with a spoon, the juicy, beefy meat is rich, satisfying and worth the splurge. Split by two, three, even four people, the rib (only available at dinner) is king of the 'cue.

Chickenrones at the Plum

I adore pork rinds, but many modern preparations leave them so light and fluffy that you forget they even came from an animal. Not so with the chickenrones served at the Plum. These crispy, crunchy morsels still taste like chicken skin, arguably the best part of the yardbird. A sprinkle of sea salt, a dip in hot sauce, and you're in snack heaven.

Tonkotsu Ramen at Mason's Creamery

There might be nothing crazier than ordering tonkotsu ramen at an ice cream shop, but people who have attended one of these ramen pop-ups know it's worth the wait in line (even with the risk that they'll run out before you get to the front). The bowls of rich, fatty pork broth, chashu (pork belly), soy-marinated soft-cooked eggs, enoki mushrooms and ramen are so good, these guys just might open up a ramen shop.

Chicken and Funnel Cake at Warren's Spirited Kitchen

Chicken and waffles is a classic dish that sets the crunch of juicy fried chicken against the backdrop of soft, sweet waffles. Screw that nonsense. At Warren's Spirited Kitchen they ditch the drab waffles for a bird's nest of deep-fried funnel cake, a nod to the community's popular Geauga County Fair. Fair food always wins.

Garnachas at El Rinconcito Chapin 

Imagine a plate of nachos that swaps the thin and crispy chips for thick, corny tortillas and you begin to get a sense of the joy that comes with every order. Each dense and sturdy base is topped with a spoonful of seasoned ground beef, a dollop of bright salsa, raw red onion and a sprinkling of salty cheese.

Coconut Curry Noodle Soup at Thai Kitchen

At Thai Kitchen, they manage to improve upon the classic Thai hot and sour soup by elevating it to entree status. They do so by supplementing the coconut milk-infused broth with chewy egg noodles, crisp-tender cauliflower and broccoli, and a heaping dose of red curry. Select shrimp, chicken, pork, beef or tofu and savor the sweet and spicy brilliance.

The Handful at Boiling Seafood

Messy, delicious fun really is the name of the game at Boiling Seafood, an eastside shop modeled after similar concepts down South and out West. Seafood like crawfish, shrimp and clams are boiled in a flavorful broth, tossed in an aggressively seasoned spice mixture, and delivered to the table in clear plastic bags. What happens next might not be pretty, but it's awesome.

Grilled Octopus at Bold Food and Drink

This is one of the best octopus dishes in town. It starts with firm but not chewy meat kissed by the grill with glorious charred bits. Those warm pieces of flesh are tossed into a cool Mediterranean salad with tomatoes, cucumber, hearts of palm and a wee bit of feta.

Fettucini Carbonara at Nora

The garnish of crispy, delicate matchstick spuds in Nora's carbonara is more than chef's conceit: The addition makes the dish. Arranged like a crown of thorns around the soft noodles, the potatoes add welcome texture to this creamy, oozy dish of pasta, egg and pancetta. A grating of salt-cured egg yolk offers a kick of umami.

Lamb Carpaccio at Salt

Throughout her 20-year career, chef Jill Vedaa has been on the bloody forefront of the small-plate crusade, a slow-moving campaign if ever there was one. But thanks to dishes like the lamb carpaccio at Salt, diners are beginning to see the light. The lamb loin is flash-seared, leaving the meat essentially raw. It is sliced whisper-thin, revealing a rosy-red flesh that is butter-soft. The slices are set against the cool crunch of shaved red cabbage and gilded with a punchy Moroccan-spiced yogurt sauce laced with cumin, cilantro, garlic and lemon.

Blood Sausage at Caribe Bake Shop

Whenever you see the term "acquired taste," you can bet that whatever follows is anything but mainstream. That's certainly the case with blood sausage, a blood-based sausage with scores of ethnic and cultural interpretations. The best among them is the Spanish morcilla, a mix of pork blood, fat, onions and cooked rice, which gives the sausage a surprising buoyancy. The best I ever tried is at Caribe Bake Shop, where the sinister looking pistons pack a mineral hit followed by a significant creeper heat. For a real treat, take some home and pan fry them in a little olive oil.

Whole Grilled Chicken at Steven's Chicken

Sometimes it is the simplest of things that leave the biggest impression. That was the case with the grilled chicken served at this modest Latin eatery in the Clark Fulton neighborhood. The owner marinates the birds in a secret brew of citrus juices, herbs and spices, spatchcocks them and grills them over glowing lump charcoal.

Fried Cheese Curds at Banter

I could easily have topped this list with any of Banter's dreamy poutine dishes – as a traditionalist I tend to go with the classic stack of frites, gravy and cheese curds. But something magical happens when you take fresh white cheddar curds, beer batter (the Banter boys opt for Colt 45 Malt Liquor, naturally), deep-fry them until hot and crisp, and serve them up with tomato puree and remoulade for dipping. These are no bland, rubbery fried mozz stix, I assure you.

Shabu-Shabu at Ushabu

It took an age-old Asian tradition to bring a unique dining experience to Cleveland. The interactive and immersive act of cooking meat in broth — shabu-shabu — is elevated to new heights at this elegant Tremont bistro. High-end meats and seafood, along with seasonal veggies and noodles, are cooked in hot broth and paired with sauce and rice for a soul-satisfying dining experience.

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