Best Of 2004

In downtown Amherst -- which the locals call "uptown" Amherst -- Hot Dog Heaven has been peddling its all-meat Sugardale franks on Nickles Bakery buns for 27 years. A common hangout for students walking up the hill from Marion L. Steele High School, this hot-dog shop makes its specialty chili-and-cheese creations as the orders are placed. A huge order came from the suits at Wal-Mart a few years ago: The retailosaurus rex is letting this two-store "chain" sell two-pound tubs of its secret-recipe chili sauce at stores throughout the Midwest.
It's been just short of a year since this upscale restaurant and bar opened in Tremont, yet it already possesses the panache of a much more experienced dining room. Thank managing partner Doug Petkovic for Theory's gracious feel -- the warm Arts & Crafts-style decor, the polished staff, and the tasteful appointments. And thank Executive Chef Tim Bando and his staff for its substance -- the concise, seasonal menu; the tightly composed dishes; and the creative vigor that transforms good ol' steak and seafood into something worth discovering all over again.
Grease monkeys need to party, too. And since Garage Bar opened this past Labor Day weekend, theirs is the jumpingest joint in town. Only Jeff Allison, formerly of Touch Supper Club, could conceive a spot that is at the same time gritty and slick. A dirt bike hangs above the threshold. The beer tap is a gasoline pump. And rock music shoots like a cannon out of a jukebox.
Nearly five inches thick and stuffed with lean, almost translucent sheets of crimson corned beef, the New Yorker at Tina's tidy deli is a monument to the glory of fine sandwiches. Further enhanced with a tangle of sweet coleslaw and a slice of Swiss cheese, and loaded onto rye, it defies attempts to eat it daintily or in one sitting. But go for it: Order it up with some of Georgette's smoky baba ghannouj, a freshly brewed iced tea, and a piece of sandy-textured, Lebanese-style baklava, and shed a little tear for those still scoring their CB sandwiches on the other side of town.
There are burgers. Then there's the most excellent Danny Melt, Halite's meaty marvel, slathered beneath truly, deeply caramelized onions and melted Gruyère, and served on marbled, light-and-dark rye bread. The key to the burger's stunning, Kobe-beef-like tenderness is its prime-quality ground meat, scored from stand H-12 at the West Side Market (butcher and bon vivant Greg Chonko's spot). Side this sucker with a salty, peppery slab of housemade pickle; some spicy ketchup; and an enormous battered jojo potato, fluffy as all get out, and you've got some serious pleasure on your plate.
Arrivederci, Roma, and hello, Cleveland! For authentic tastes of the Piedmont, this friendly, intimate dining room in the heart of Little Italy is the next best thing to an actual trip to the land of olive oil and garlic. Big flavors -- in such dishes as rack of lamb in a fruity fig-and-port reduction; long-boned veal chops, brushed with woodsy essence of porcini mushrooms; and homemade pappardelle, in sweet-tart Bolognese-style tomato sauce, made from freshly ground boar's meat and seasoned with garlic, rosemary, Chianti, and black pepper -- shake up the palate the way Carlo Rizzo rattles a tambourine. And then, when avuncular proprietor Ricardo Salerno strolls by, his fingers dancing across the keys of his accordion . . . well, this may be the Midwest, and you may not be Italian, but we'll promise you one thing: That's amore!
Slurp, click. Slurp, click. That's the sound of happy diners wielding chopsticks and soupspoons at our favorite noodle shop, Pho Hoa. While the little eatery, tucked inside Chinatown's Golden Plaza, recently expanded its menu and underwent a mini-remodeling that made the digs much more hip and trendy, it's still the pho -- that substantial Vietnamese soup with sweet and savory broth, plump noodles, and tender beef -- that makes us get all steamy inside. Mix it to taste with hot sauce, fish sauce, and thick soy paste as well as fresh lime, Asian basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, and hot peppers, and what you get is the type of complex taste adventure that you'll never pour out of a can.
Food is life. But that can be tough to recall when your meals come mainly from drive-through windows. Luckily, the cure for your gustatory amnesia is close at hand at Fahrenheit, where chef-owner Rocco Whalen seduces palates with some of the most voluptuous dishes in town. Like the perfect lover, Whalen's culinary creations are bold, inventive, and sometimes just a wee bit naughty (we're thinking mostly of his chocolate-coconut pot de crème, peeking coyly out from beneath a sinfully dense cloud of real whipped cream). For those who have forgotten -- or sadder still, never known -- that food can be orgasmic (batteries not included).
The delicate, honeyed flavor of ice wine comes from allowing the grapes to freeze on the vine, a process that concentrates the natural sugars. Because production is both labor-intensive and completely dependent on the weather, the wine is both scarce and expensive -- in other words, the perfect gourmet treat! Ferrante's version, with 20 percent residual sugar, a bouquet of apricots and orange blossoms, and flavors of honey and melon, is a perpetual gold-medal winner at the annual Ohio Wine Competition. Pop the cork on your own bottle, and you'll immediately taste why.
Oatmeal? Too wholesome. Bacon and eggs? Too routine. Instead, when we wake up dreaming of the perfect way to start our day, pancakes, in all their glorious diversity, are what's on our mind, and the Original Pancake House in Woodmere is where we point our car. It's clean and comfortable, with a menu that features nearly two dozen variations on the theme, ranging from sensible sourdough flapjacks to pouffy, soufflé-like Dutch Babies swaddled in powdered sugar. The offerings could take us years to analyze fully -- and that doesn't even account for the pecan waffles, cherry kijafa crêpes, or the mushroom omelets!
California entrepreneurs Mark Kuperman and Anthony Dellamano introduced battered and fried Applestix to the world this past April at Jacobs Field. (A second location opened in Parmatown Mall in July.) Made from tart Ohio Mutsu apples and tossed in a secret blend of sugar and spices, these appealing little noshes are served with a choice of caramel, chocolate, lemon cheesecake, peanut butter, or vanilla dipping sauces, for a taste experience about as far removed from health food as gin is from water. But wait -- there's more! In a final act of chutzpah, Kuperman and Dellamano pushed the nutritional envelope just a little bit harder. The result? The Super -- those very same fried-apple sticks, now topped with frozen custard! Are these guys gods or what?