After years of slogging through gringo-fied menus of ersatz "Mexican" eats -- complete with greasy ground beef, waxy cheese sauces, and bottled salsas -- our region is now awash with casually upscale restaurants that combine the best in modern American cooking with the authentic flavors of the traditional Mexican cocina. At the crest of the wave you'll find Momocho, where chef/owner Eric Williams' small menu bursts with creative fare -- like the lamb chops, rubbed with a tangy red chile-paste adobo and lightly stroked with jalapeño-mustard crema. As a backdrop to the gustatory sizzle, the historic Ohio City space, done up in a Día de los Muertos-style decor of demon masks and grinning skulls, adds a hip, edgy vibe. The result is a restaurant so good, it's downright scary.
If your idea of "Cleveland cuisine" is a fried bologna sandwich wolfed down in a crowded beer joint, it's time to broaden your horizons. Try a trip to Lola, award-winning chef Michael Symon's hip downtown restaurant, where hometown faves -- pierogi, spaetzle, short ribs, and yes, even that fried bologna sandwich -- get an extreme makeover, foodie-style. Call it "modern Midwestern" cuisine or simply "damn fine grub." But in combination with the restaurant's dark, edgy interior, determinedly urban setting, and down-to-earth groove, the food positions Lola as the essential Cleveland restaurant: smart but unpretentious, artful but approachable, and a welcome reminder that even here in the Rust Belt, brilliance abounds.
When Matt Mathlage and Eric Dietrich flipped the switch on Light in the spring, they illuminated one of the most imaginative menus in town, made up of about 20 tapas-style small plates and 10 larger but still tightly composed entrées. Befitting his "progressive American" concept, Chef Matt transforms earthy ingredients like venison, arugula, ostrich, and eggplant into smart little tidbits of edible art. His compositions are spare, his approach is essential, and the flavors are often totally unexpected. The creations are painstakingly plated on sheer white backgrounds, all the better to show off rosy meats, miniature hedgerows of microgreens, and artful dabs of intense reductions. All this takes place in a dim, tasteful setting of coppery wall coverings, abstract oil paintings, and plenty of old red brick, making Light Bistro a true bright spot on the city's dining scene.
The seasonal menu at this Ohio City bistro makes celebrities out of humble Ohio fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products -- from heirloom tomatoes and pesticide-free peaches to Tea Hill Farms chicken and Lake Erie Creamery goat cheese. Of course, it's one thing to turn a spotlight on the finest regional, seasonal ingredients; it's something else again to make them shine. Chef-owner Karen Small and her staff prove their mettle, lavishing each ear of corn, stalk of asparagus, or golden beet with rapt attention, then coddling them until their natural essences are focused, amplified, and released on a plate. The process makes for some of the most precise, delicious, and righteous food imaginable. If it's true that we are what we eat, then Flying Fig's patrons are among the city's most fortunate diners.
For price, ambience, and first-class people-watching, no place tops the West Side Market Café in the venerable West Side Market's southeast corner. Buyers and sellers, porters and clerks, urban pioneers and suburban sightseers -- all snuggle shoulder-to-shoulder inside this small, cheerful space, eager to assuage their hunger pangs with something from the café's homey morning menu. Watching your wallet? A mere $2.25 will snag you two eggs, toast, and hash browns. Feeling flush? How about an eight-ounce strip steak, topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, on an English muffin ($11)?
The pulse of the neighborhood beats strong inside this homey little café and bakeshop. Bring a laptop or a hefty newspaper, or just bring your appetite, and dig into chef-owner Heather Haviland's fresh, earthy, and carefully crafted fare. The frequently changing list of offerings could include fluffy Belgian sweet-corn waffles, or a pair of breakfast burritos, stuffed with scrambled eggs and veggies, and blanketed in a dark, delicious, guajillo-pepper mole. On the side, try some praline bacon, baked with crumbled sugar and finely diced pecans. Or for the veg-heads, maybe the curried tofu or crunchy homemade granola. It's one part Summer of Love, one part Food Network -- the kind of place to make you feel lucky to live in Cleveland.
XO Prime Steaks dishes out a mouthwatering combo of indulgent eats, attentive service, and a trendy setting in the heart of the Warehouse District. Try the bone-in rib-eye, an almost indecently succulent intersection of sizzle and smoke; or that 48-ounce porterhouse for two, a perfect marriage of richness and sensuality. On the side, smart additions like house-made steak sauce and truffled sweet corn make each plate vibrate with high-test flavors. Factor in the bustling bar scene, and it's no wonder XO is the place to see and be seen -- and to have a five-star steak while doing it.
Nothing shouts "summer" like a plate of saucy 'cue, and there's none better than that served on the porch of Bubba's Q. Head out back, past the mementos of Al "Bubba" Baker's NFL career, to the sturdy picnic tables, where you can gnaw your bones to the beat of blues tunes. Prime real estate on hot July evenings, when it opens onto a large patio, the porch is just as attractive in winter months: A crackling fire and radiant heaters disperse the chill, while freshly baked cornmeal muffins, dense mac 'n' cheese, and sweet iced tea deliver thoughts of sun-soaked picnics. Then there's that 'cue -- smoky, saucy, and laced with savory char. And for dessert, it's classic lemon meringue pie. If all that isn't enough to warm you up, you may have to head to Florida.
This unpretentious cantina combines a quirky sense of humor with a serious devotion to delivering a memorable dining experience. The ever-evolving menu riffs on a Tex-Mex theme, with sassy little tidbits like blue cheese and sage guacamole, mezcal-marinated chicken, and crab cakes on a citrus-fennel salad with cilantro aioli. Reasonably sized portions, together with Lopez's proximity to the Cedar Lee Theatre, make for a perfect pre-film meal. But leave plenty of time: a colorful dining room, airy patio, and handsome bar, well stocked with more than two dozen tequilas, will make getting up from the dinner table more difficult than you might anticipate.
OK, so there's not an Irish-Mexican joint on every corner. But there should be, if they could all be as handsome, spacious, and energetic as Loco Leprechaun, with its blaring music, bustling bar scene, and big menu of unexpectedly good tavern fare. Consider the signature Loco Nachos -- a ginormous tumble of crisp, tricolored tortilla chips, slathered with melted cheddar and jack, and finished with fruity homemade salsa: It's not gourmet grub, by any means, but it's novel and delish. And yes, it goes as well with Guinness as it does with a Dos Equis.