December 14, 2017

The Best Things We Ate in Cleveland in 2017

Unfortunately, every meal out is not going to be a homerun. But fortunately, it's the best ones that linger, lodged in the brain like a compulsion on a string tugging you back to the source. For me, these are the meals of 2017 that I hope to never forget.

Unfortunately, every meal out is not going to be a homerun. But fortunately, it's the best ones that linger, lodged in the brain like a compulsion on a string tugging you back to the source. For me, these are the meals of 2017 that I hope to never forget.

By Douglas Trattner

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 Special Combo at Zoma Ethiopian Restaurant
2240 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights
I didn't expect the food at Zoma in Cleveland Heights to have such a positive lasting effect on my soul. In what world does a cuisine comprised largely of humble ingredients like lentils, chickpeas, cabbage and potatoes rise to such heights? Where else would a diner put up with eating food sans silverware from the same plate as their tablemates? Show me a place where the bread is spongy, cold and ever-so funky and I'll show you a place destined for failure. That is, unless it's an Ethiopian place called Zoma.
Photo by Barney Taxel

Special Combo at Zoma Ethiopian Restaurant

2240 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights

I didn't expect the food at Zoma in Cleveland Heights to have such a positive lasting effect on my soul. In what world does a cuisine comprised largely of humble ingredients like lentils, chickpeas, cabbage and potatoes rise to such heights? Where else would a diner put up with eating food sans silverware from the same plate as their tablemates? Show me a place where the bread is spongy, cold and ever-so funky and I'll show you a place destined for failure. That is, unless it's an Ethiopian place called Zoma.

Photo by Barney Taxel
 Miso Ramen at Xinji Noodle Bar
4211 Lorain Rd., Cleveland
I doubt I'll ever achieve owner Shuxin Liu's recommended five-minute limit when it comes to consuming a bowl ramen, a time derived from the lifecycle of a bouncy noodle, but damn if I won't keep trying. Bowls of chicken and pork-based broth contain fresh noodles, silky slabs of buttery pork belly, corn, scallions, mushrooms and, if you're wise, a soft-cooked egg. If at first you don't succeed in the five-minute drill, try and try again at this Ohio City noodle bar.
Photo by Emmanuel Wallace

Miso Ramen at Xinji Noodle Bar

4211 Lorain Rd., Cleveland

I doubt I'll ever achieve owner Shuxin Liu's recommended five-minute limit when it comes to consuming a bowl ramen, a time derived from the lifecycle of a bouncy noodle, but damn if I won't keep trying. Bowls of chicken and pork-based broth contain fresh noodles, silky slabs of buttery pork belly, corn, scallions, mushrooms and, if you're wise, a soft-cooked egg. If at first you don't succeed in the five-minute drill, try and try again at this Ohio City noodle bar.

Photo by Emmanuel Wallace
 Double at Bob’s Hamburg
1351 East Ave., Akron
I drove 40 miles for a $4 hamburger and it was one of the soundest decisions I made all year. For more than 85 blessed years, Bob's in Akron has been sizzling near-perfect smash burgers on the original coal-black griddle. They exit with a lacey, crisp edge, seasoned only by the ancient griddle and the grease left over from the morning ham and bacon. Mine lands in a toasted bun slathered with mayo and onion and it explodes with pure beefy flavor.
Photo by Douglas Trattner

Double at Bob’s Hamburg

1351 East Ave., Akron

I drove 40 miles for a $4 hamburger and it was one of the soundest decisions I made all year. For more than 85 blessed years, Bob's in Akron has been sizzling near-perfect smash burgers on the original coal-black griddle. They exit with a lacey, crisp edge, seasoned only by the ancient griddle and the grease left over from the morning ham and bacon. Mine lands in a toasted bun slathered with mayo and onion and it explodes with pure beefy flavor.

Photo by Douglas Trattner
 Rosemary Frycake with Lemon Glaze at Brewnuts
6501 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
In the great debate between sweet and salty, I am firmly in the salty camp. Give me a plate of ripe, stinky cheese for dessert over some triple-layer death-by-chocolate belly bomb any damn day of the week. That's why when it comes to donuts, you can keep your chocolate pudding-filled, gummy worm-garnished confection, thanks, but kindly hand over that old-fashioned cake donut infused with rosemary and gilded with a bracing lemon glaze.
Photo by Douglas Trattner

Rosemary Frycake with Lemon Glaze at Brewnuts

6501 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

In the great debate between sweet and salty, I am firmly in the salty camp. Give me a plate of ripe, stinky cheese for dessert over some triple-layer death-by-chocolate belly bomb any damn day of the week. That's why when it comes to donuts, you can keep your chocolate pudding-filled, gummy worm-garnished confection, thanks, but kindly hand over that old-fashioned cake donut infused with rosemary and gilded with a bracing lemon glaze.

Photo by Douglas Trattner
 Lamb Tamales at Collision Bend
1250 Old River Rd., Cleveland
It's pretty much a truism that the longer the menu, the more duds there are bound to be. Zack Bruell restaurants almost always contradict that rule thanks to notoriously lengthy rosters filled with wildly delicious variety. Still, I never expected an aging Jewish hippie to deliver some of the best lamb tamales ever to cross my teeth. At Collision Bend Brewing in the Flats, zesty ground lamb is tucked inside perfectly steamed masa dough and garnished with lively salsa verde. 
Photo by Emmanuel Wallace

Lamb Tamales at Collision Bend

1250 Old River Rd., Cleveland

It's pretty much a truism that the longer the menu, the more duds there are bound to be. Zack Bruell restaurants almost always contradict that rule thanks to notoriously lengthy rosters filled with wildly delicious variety. Still, I never expected an aging Jewish hippie to deliver some of the best lamb tamales ever to cross my teeth. At Collision Bend Brewing in the Flats, zesty ground lamb is tucked inside perfectly steamed masa dough and garnished with lively salsa verde.

Photo by Emmanuel Wallace
 Ribs and Brisket (Don’t Make Me Choose) at Barabicu Smokehouse
5767 Ridge Rd., Parma
I'm still thinking about the beef brisket and baby back ribs that I enjoyed a full 11 months ago at Barabicu Smokehouse in Parma. Barbecue should be rapturous (until the meat sweats kick in) and it should linger in the part of your brain reserved for glee long after it's gone. The jiggly, mouth-wateringly juicy brisket sits beneath a dark cap of spice and succulent fat. Those pig bones were meaty, firm and flavorful, kissed by fruitwood smoke and glazed with a thin, sweet crust.
Photo by Emmanuel Wallace

Ribs and Brisket (Don’t Make Me Choose) at Barabicu Smokehouse

5767 Ridge Rd., Parma

I'm still thinking about the beef brisket and baby back ribs that I enjoyed a full 11 months ago at Barabicu Smokehouse in Parma. Barbecue should be rapturous (until the meat sweats kick in) and it should linger in the part of your brain reserved for glee long after it's gone. The jiggly, mouth-wateringly juicy brisket sits beneath a dark cap of spice and succulent fat. Those pig bones were meaty, firm and flavorful, kissed by fruitwood smoke and glazed with a thin, sweet crust.

Photo by Emmanuel Wallace
 Tacos at La Casita
484 North State Rd., Painesville
Hate to break it to you, but you're out of luck: La Casita, a Mexican grocer in Painesville, only operates its outdoor kitchen from spring through fall. That's when neighbors gather at plastic card tables beneath canvas tents to savor some of the best tacos in the tri-state area. Chorizo, tripe, tongue and al pastor are popped into warm homemade corn tortillas and garnished with roasted onions and blistered jalapeno peppers, along with your choice of salsas. Best $1.75 you'll ever spend.
Photo by Douglas Trattner

Tacos at La Casita

484 North State Rd., Painesville

Hate to break it to you, but you're out of luck: La Casita, a Mexican grocer in Painesville, only operates its outdoor kitchen from spring through fall. That's when neighbors gather at plastic card tables beneath canvas tents to savor some of the best tacos in the tri-state area. Chorizo, tripe, tongue and al pastor are popped into warm homemade corn tortillas and garnished with roasted onions and blistered jalapeno peppers, along with your choice of salsas. Best $1.75 you'll ever spend.

Photo by Douglas Trattner
 Grilled Octopus at Astoria Market and Cafe
5417 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
No offense to Bold Food and Drink, which last year earned a spot on this very list thanks to their righteous octopi, but say hello to Astoria Market and Cafe in Detroit Shoreway. The version served here is as beautiful as it is delicious, with delectable coins of wine-braised, charcoal-grilled and sliced tentacles artfully arranged on a plate. Kissed by lemon, olive oil and fresh oregano, they almost are too pretty to eat.
Photo by Emmanuel Wallace

Grilled Octopus at Astoria Market and Cafe

5417 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

No offense to Bold Food and Drink, which last year earned a spot on this very list thanks to their righteous octopi, but say hello to Astoria Market and Cafe in Detroit Shoreway. The version served here is as beautiful as it is delicious, with delectable coins of wine-braised, charcoal-grilled and sliced tentacles artfully arranged on a plate. Kissed by lemon, olive oil and fresh oregano, they almost are too pretty to eat.

Photo by Emmanuel Wallace
 Corndog at Noble Beast
1470 Lakeside Ave. East, Cleveland
Corndogs, long the greasy fair staple-on-a-stick, get such an upgrade at Noble Beast Brewing that they almost have nothing in common with the classic, apart from the skewer. For starters, the bland wiener is replaced by a meaty smoked kielbasa. And the typical sweet cornmeal batter undergoes a savory transformation thanks to the use of spent grains from the brewing process. Dunk that baby in the accompanying beer honey mustard and boom! goes the dynamite.
Photo by Emmanuel Wallace

Corndog at Noble Beast

1470 Lakeside Ave. East, Cleveland

Corndogs, long the greasy fair staple-on-a-stick, get such an upgrade at Noble Beast Brewing that they almost have nothing in common with the classic, apart from the skewer. For starters, the bland wiener is replaced by a meaty smoked kielbasa. And the typical sweet cornmeal batter undergoes a savory transformation thanks to the use of spent grains from the brewing process. Dunk that baby in the accompanying beer honey mustard and boom! goes the dynamite.

Photo by Emmanuel Wallace
 Pad Krapow at Thai Thai
13735 Madison Ave., Lakewood
Why is it they never believe us when we say "spicy"? Why must we beg — and, likely, still be ignored — when we request our dish to be electric with chile pepper? That's not the case at Thai Thai in Lakewood, where the standard-issue heat level for classically hot dishes is "Thai spicy." If you've enjoyed what passes for Holy Basil elsewhere, the version served here will ruin you. The habit-forming ground-meat dish is spicy, savory and tart, and the steamed rice it comes with is crowned with a runny fried egg, as is the custom.
Photo by Emmanuel Wallace

Pad Krapow at Thai Thai

13735 Madison Ave., Lakewood

Why is it they never believe us when we say "spicy"? Why must we beg — and, likely, still be ignored — when we request our dish to be electric with chile pepper? That's not the case at Thai Thai in Lakewood, where the standard-issue heat level for classically hot dishes is "Thai spicy." If you've enjoyed what passes for Holy Basil elsewhere, the version served here will ruin you. The habit-forming ground-meat dish is spicy, savory and tart, and the steamed rice it comes with is crowned with a runny fried egg, as is the custom.

Photo by Emmanuel Wallace