In a town filled to bursting with prime flavors, we wondered what it was exactly that the local food glitterati crave. So we asked them: When you think of a favorite meal — past or present, fancy or bargain-priced — what is it that you recall most fondly?
Their responses were both predictable and utterly unexpected. Predictable because these folks know food, and one would expect that they have plenty of suggestions to share. What we didn't anticipate were the backstories — the circumstances around those dishes and meals that made them unforgettable.
And what better time of year to celebrate the region's bounty than Thanksgiving: the ultimate banquet, made all the better thanks to family, friends, and a few bottles of good booze. So dig in — and bon appétit!
Good to the Bone
When he isn't toiling in his mobile kitchens, Chris Hodgson is no less mobile. The chef and owner of Hodge Podge and Dim and Den Sum food trucks eats out every chance he gets. A slave to neither East nor West, Hodgson is on a perpetual quest to sample as many of Cleveland's restaurants as time allows. And when he finds one he likes, he does everything he can to promote it.
An obvious fan of the odder bits, Hodgson orders roasted beef marrow bones wherever he finds them. It's his favorite dish, he says. And he happened to stumble upon his favorite version of his favorite dish in Solon, of all places — at Harvest Kitchen, chef Michael Longo's American bistro.
"It is the most simple thing in the world," Hodgson says of roasted marrow. "But people get it wrong all the time." His chief gripes? Too often they're undercooked, overcooked, or just so skimpy that nary a scoop of marrow can be savored. Not so here. "At Harvest, they are cooked perfectly every single time."
Hodgson's reverent description calls for jumbo-sized bones sliced laterally and topped with an Italian-style cheese crust, which nicely counters the pudding-like consistency of the marrow. A chile-spiked salsa verde adds a bracing kick of heat at the end. All of the above is slathered on toast points and devoured — by Hodgson, anyway — between sips of chardonnay.
"It's the greatest bread and butter plate you could ever ask for," he promises.
AN IRON CHEF ORIGINAL
When we put our question to Matt Fish, owner of the Melt Bar & Grilled chain, there was not a moment of hesitation. His answer seemed to be perched on the tip of his tongue, just waiting for somebody to ask about it. And why not? His all-time favorite dish did more than satisfy his appetite — it altered his entire perception of cooking.
"When Lola first opened in Tremont, it felt to me like it was the premier restaurant in the whole country," Fish recalls. "My first introduction to real, intense cooking was [Michael] Symon's Slash-and-Burn grouper. That one dish opened my eyes to a completely new way of thinking and cooking. It was totally modern, the way it was presented — even the name."
Back then, Fish was cranking out chicken parmesan at an Italian joint called Marco Polo. He and his chef buddies would make quarterly trips to Lola, eager to try the latest menu iteration. For them, it was more intel than indulgence. "We'd go back to our kitchen and try and emulate what they were doing," he freely admits.
Old World, Old Habits
Sam McNulty has traveled the world, eating and drinking his way through hamlets big and small. But ask the creator of Bar Cento, Bier Markt, and Market Garden Brewery about his Death Row meal, and you'll get an answer that hits close to home: stuffed cabbage and pierogies at Sokolowski's University Inn in Tremont.
"It's a dish I've been going back to ever since I was 10 years old," McNulty says. "It's my secret once-a-month indulgence. If I ate there much more than that I'd be overweight."
To make the meal "healthy," McNulty says he tacks on an order of green beans. Either that or he shares the pierogies with a friend. That way, he leaves room for his other indulgence: "At least three of the 23-ounce Great Lakes drafts."
Whenever McNulty has friends visiting from out of town, Sokolowski's is on the itinerary.
"This place is a Cleveland icon," he says. "You'll never find anything like this in the New Yorks or L.A.s of the world."
A Craving for Dog Food
Nate Williams is a night owl — so much so that his first solo gig, following nearly a dozen years in the kitchens of Flying Fig, is a late-night sandwich shop. The self-avowed "Ohio City rat" recently unveiled Bogtrotters Doorstep in the heart of his favorite neighborhood, where he dispenses high-quality sandwiches until 3 a.m. on weekends.
On the nights he isn't hawking hoagies till dawn, Williams sneaks off to another wee-hours watering hole — which just so happens to be co-owned by his brother, Eric Williams.
"I love the Happy Dog," says Nate. "There aren't many great options for late-night dining. Happy Dog serves until 2 in the morning."
Williams tries something different most every time — Happy Dog boasts some 50 hot dog toppings, after all — but his favorite is also the most straightforward: chili and cheese. Occasionally, he'll spice things up a bit by adding the crunchy potato chip topping. He rounds out his pre-dawn feast with hollandaise-topped tater tots and a glass of Irish whiskey.
"It's such a great concept — the hot dogs with all the toppings," he says. "I mean, you can't really go wrong. Just have fun with it."
Ice Cream Dreams
Brothers Pete and Mike Mitchell are in the business of bringing smiles to the faces of little (and big) kids all over Northeast Ohio. As the owners of Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream, they do it one scoop at a time. So it's not altogether surprising that each one of them immediately reverts back to his childhood when reflecting upon favorite foods.
"A big part of my summers growing up in University Heights was going to the pool with my friends," recalls Pete Mitchell. "In the afternoon we would hop on our bikes and ride to Bialy's Bagels."
Of course, Bialy's is still around, dispensing this city's best bagels for more than 45 years. And Pete still goes there every chance he gets. But he can't set foot inside the place without immediately reverting to the days when he would come via bike instead of Buick.
"I would order a freshly made salt stick and cherry-strawberry Cotton Club, and sit against the building to eat it. I can practically feel the sun on my face just telling the story. And I can picture in my mind the women who worked there."
Pete's brother Mike still eats at Tommy's on Coventry, but it was those clandestine high school lunches that leave the sweetest taste in his mind. As a student at Heights High, Mitchell would sneak off campus, hop in his Honda Civic, and make the short trek to Coventry Road.
"Tommy's was such a cool place," he says. "I mean, it still is, but back then it felt so exotic: progressive, vegetarian, Middle Eastern. And Tommy [Fello] was always there cooking."
Mike's order was always the same: falafel with veggies and cheese, crispy fries, and a huge peach milkshake. "After all that, you'd have to roll yourself home."