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."
It was at the rehearsal dinner for her son's wedding that Donita Anderson was introduced to her all-time favorite dish — a salad, of all things. The locale? Pacific East in Cleveland Heights.
"I'm Burmese, and Susan, the co-owner, is Burmese too," says Anderson, executive director of North Union Farmers Market. "She created this wonderful salad that tastes similar to the dishes I had growing up. I've only seen it in places like D.C. or New York."
Called Tea Leaf Salad, the dish is characteristic of Burmese cooking, with its blend of pickled tea leaves, dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, and crunchy fried garlic. "It's crunchy and spicy, with Pacific Rim-style Asian flavors."
You won't find the dish on the menu at Pacific East — "Susan is quite shy about putting Burmese food on the menu," says Anderson — but it's usually available for those willing to try something new and delicious.
Pockets of Joy
Through his culinary adventure company NEO Food Tours, Todd Gauman introduces people to the sort of neighborhood gems we so often overlook. One of his personal favorite parts of Cleveland happens to be a particular stretch of Lorain Avenue on the near West Side.
"That area is such an interesting cultural hodgepodge of ethnicities," he explains. "We've lost so many cultural pockets in this city. I love that the West Side still has so many authentic ethnic places."
It was there that Gauman stumbled upon Assad's Bakery while he was on a pita run for his seasonal employer, Judy's Oasis on West 25th.
He hasn't stopped talking up the joint since.
"This is one of those great Cleveland places," he says. "You walk in the back and these 80-year-old Middle Eastern women are making spinach and feta pies by hand. There is this huge contraption that makes fresh pitas. It was probably made centuries ago for this one task."
Come lunchtime, Gauman skips the spinach pie and digs into meatier fare. "The beef shawarma just rocks," he says. Shaved off a vertical spit, the meat is packed into a fresh-baked pita with shaved red onion, pickles, and garlic sauce.
"My godparents are Syrian, so I've been eating Middle Eastern food from a very young age," he adds as a point of reference.
Food writer Laura Taxel never knows when she'll be digging into her all-time favorite dish. That's because that dish — mussels in spicy garlic sauce at Sun Luck Garden in Cleveland Heights — isn't on the menu. Chef and owner Annie Chiu only makes it when she can get great seafood and has the time to create the labor-intensive sauce.
"It's like a special club," Taxel says of the fortunate group that swoons over the dish. "Annie literally will personally call you when she's making them. When you get the call, you rearrange your weekend plans and go."
Taxel and her family have been eating Chiu's food since her oldest son was a baby. He's 33 now. Another son's first job was bussing tables and washing dishes at the restaurant. "Our lives have become enmeshed," she says.
Though she never knows when the next plate of spicy mussels will grace her gullet, Taxel says the amount of time that passes between platters always seems perfect.
"It's just enough time that you always look forward to it — but not so long that you have to wait for a special occasion."
It Takes Guts
Michael Herschman is not an extreme eater. He does not seek out bizarre foods just to say he's tried them. As a chef and connoisseur, his only goal is to track down and devour delicious grub. We say that only because his most adored dish in all of Cleveland sounds more like a dare than a dinner.
"I love the crispy pork intestines at Wonton Gourmet," he says with a completely straight face. "It's somewhere between braised pork belly, chitlins, and crispy-fried artery blockers."
According to Herschman's blow-by-blow, the intestines are cut into strips and fried until they are "nice and crispy outside, and fatty, melty on the flipside." They are paired with julienned radish and carrot slaw to cut the richness. He washes it all down with pots of the house chai.
Herschman, chef at Lopez on Lee, has been a fan of Wonton Gourmet since it opened in Asiatown about three years back. He goes so far as to call it the best Chinese food in town — an honor that leaves significant competition scrambling for second place.
"Where else can you point to a picture on the wall to order and watch Chinese game shows on TV?"
Here's something you don't know about restaurateur Alan Glazen: The man behind ABC and XYZ taverns once was mayor of Bentleyville, a pint-sized village just south of Chagrin Falls. That was 30-odd years ago, and in all that time, Glazen has never found a better platter of ribs than those at Rick's Café.
Coincidentally, that's about as long as Rick's has been around. A Chagrin Falls fixture for more than three decades, the cozy saloon packs in happy customers like so many sardines. And every one of them, it seems, agrees with Glazen about the ribs.
"I think they are the best ribs in the city," he says. "I don't like my ribs falling off the bone. I want meat that sticks to the ribs and crunches when you bite into them. I want crispy ribs."
To Glazen, a restaurant is much more than merely a collection of its dishes.
"I look at Rick's the same way I look at ABC and XYZ. If you like the people, if you like the environment, that's what's it's all about. You know you're going to have a great conversation when you go to Rick's."
Flesh for Fantasy
On her daily radio program Around Noon, WCPN host Dee Perry chats up the movers and shakers of the arts and entertainment world. But something truly special happens whenever the topic turns to food. This lady, as any listener can tell, is an unapologetic foodie.
For proof of that, just listen to Perry describe her all-time favorite dish: the 40-clove heirloom-garlic-roasted chicken in brioche from Greenhouse Tavern.
"You cut into the brioche and it reveals this chicken, falling-off-the-bone tender. And then this aroma of garlic rises to your nose. You take a bite and get the sweet, salty bread, incredibly moist-tasting chicken, and this buttery broth. It is the best thing I have ever tasted. I find myself fantasizing about it."
Perry knows that good food only becomes great food when it's shared with somebody special.
"The best dishes are usually not something you squirreled away to eat by yourself," she says. "They are something you share with family or friends who share a love of good food."