Smoke and Fire

Looks are deceiving at one Strongsville barbecue joint.

Barbecued spaghetti: Don't knock it till you've tried it. - Walter  Novak
Barbecued spaghetti: Don't knock it till you've tried it.
Saying this spot looked dull would be putting it mildly. "Dead" or "deserted" was more like it, as a girlfriend and I surveyed the empty sidewalk in front of Strongsville's Brew Kettle Taproom & Smokehouse.

"You were kidding when you said you heard this place was good, right?" she asked.

But I never had the chance to answer her. At that very moment, we threw open the doors, and like Lutherans stumbling into a tent revival, we suddenly saw the light.

Well, not literally. The long, narrow barroom is actually pretty dim and cozy. Other than the flicker of a half-dozen TVs and the strings of white mini-lights bordering the walls, the primary illumination comes from a series of old-fashioned shop lights positioned above a long line of rustic pine booths. The upshot is a space with a cool, almost cavelike quality.

But what was apparent is that the Brew Kettle is an immensely popular hangout for its West Side clientele. Even on a sunny Tuesday evening, when all good suburbanites should be home mowing their lawns or trimming the roses, the place was packed.

How such a dull facade could give way to so much merriment was a head-scratcher. But according to beer-loving owners Chris and Pam McKim, it's been that way since spring 2003, when the couple opened the pub as a companion to their already established brew-it-yourself operation and their small Ringneck Brewing Company.

Today, with the help of brewmaster Vince Falcone and chef Charlie Thomas, the McKims welcome guests with an ever-changing collection of 24 beers on draft (some from Ringneck, some culled from other small craft breweries, such as Dogfish Head and Lagunitas), and a big menu of hearty, homemade pub grub, featuring barbecued meats from the brewery's on-site smoker.

Portions are hefty and prices modest (with nothing except a few entrées exceeding the $12 mark). And the breadth of possibilities is staggering, with everything from soft pretzels, spinach dip, and ample cheese-and-sausage platters to meal-sized salads, burgers, wraps, ribs, and Saturday-night prime rib, slow-roasted with a touch of smoke.

The bountiful cheese-and-sausage platter made a good jumping-off point. A wedge of nutty Swiss, a mound of sharp-and-salty Cheddar cheese spread, and two types of sausages provided substance, while cured olives, sliced jalapeños, hot and whole-grained mustards, and a variety of crackers offered a panorama of taste possibilities. Less traditional, but no less beer-friendly, the kitchen's signature black-bean cakes, jazzed up with shrimp and spicy chorizo, then topped with roasted corn salsa and sour cream, gave our taste buds a fine romp too.

Still, it's the rubbed, smoked, and barbecued meats that form the menu's heart, and two types of sampler platters offer convenient ways to take its pulse. The first -- the Backyard Sampler -- includes a quarter-slab of barbecued St. Louis ribs, a pile of juicy pulled pork, and two enormous barbecued chicken wings; on the side: cool, crisp coleslaw and a pile of fries. While the behemoth wings -- served whole, with both segments attached -- were almost impossibly messy, their succulence and the sassy sauce were well worth the sticky fingers. The same winning flavors showed up in the tender pulled pork and in the firm, meaty, well-trimmed ribs, which had been dry-rubbed and slow-smoked for six hours over hickory.

In comparison, the Savory Sampler -- thick slabs of brined, smoked, and grilled pork tenderloin and turkey, and a relatively slim slice of slow-roasted prime rib -- didn't make as good a showing. The turkey and pork, in particular, were almost chokingly dry and so overwhelmed with smoke that their natural flavors were nearly obliterated.

But when it comes to the pulled pork, the kitchen has a winner, which it shows off in salads, sandwiches, and -- best of all --barbecued spaghetti. Sure, this stack-up of pasta, pulled pork, Cheddar, and barbecue sauce sounds a little weird, but like Cincinnati Five-Way Chili, it's a powerhouse of commingling tastes and textures. On the other hand, a pulled-pork burrito felt a little flat, with one-dimensional flavors and a soggy texture.

Among the Ringneck brews, the rotating selections may include a well-crafted Hefeweizen as well as pale ales, German-style lagers, and the carbonated Poor Richard's Ale, meant to mimic a colonial-style recipe. During Monday through Friday happy hours (11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.), most of the Ringneck beers go for $2.75 each, and on Sundays, select styles are only $2 a glass or $5 per pitcher.

After dinner, the bartenders will happily top off your ice-cream float with a pull of stout or porter; anyone with a slightly less adventurous sweet tooth won't go wrong with the rich but not heavy bread pudding, finished with an aromatic Maker's Mark custard sauce.

As we hoovered up every last drop, we recalled an old lesson: Never judge a restaurant by its sidewalk.