I’m a big Cleveland fan for any number of reasons, including that I went to school in Ohio (Kenyon!) and love LeBron. So I take a fierce pride in the city's evolving food scene. Recently I got to spend a few days there with star chef and local hero Michael Symon as my tour guide. Here’s a sampling of where we went and what we ate—and where I would urge anyone who’s headed to Cleveland to go to, too.
Pierogi Flatbread at Butcher and the Brewer
This lively beer hall has a vast, crowd-pleasing menu that is ruled by cured meats—the chef, charcutier and butcher are all name-checked at the top. I saw Pierogi Flatbread on the list and knew what I was having. Baked in a wood-fired oven, the crust is loaded with peppery mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, and melted cheddar and fontina, plus a drizzle of crème fraîche. It’s just awesome, as is the beer menu, which includes stellar housemade brews.
Peanut Butter and Hot Sauce at Hot Dog, Happy Dog
There’s a choice of 50 toppings for the hot dogs at this bar, from the hometown favorite Berman’s Ballpark mustard to pork-n-beans to Fruit Loops. There’s no extra charge for toppings, and some thrill seekers get all of them. “It’s as disgusting as you can imagine,” confided one bartender, whom I totally believe. Acting on a suggestion from Symon, I got an all-beef frank with chunky housemade peanut butter (almost like a Thai peanut sauce), with vibrant green alien pickle relish and habanero hot sauce. The three different garnishes gave it all kinds of flavor and texture; it was delicious, unlike any hot dog I’ve ever had. On the other hand, I don’t recommend the Fruit Loops.
Painkiller, at Porco Lounge and Tiki Room
From the outside, it’s a grim brick building hidden in an odd warehouse section of Cleveland. Inside, it’s a full-on tiki party, complete with thatched awnings, bamboo walls and lanterns, as well as shelves and shelves of tiki mugs. The multi-page menu tells little stories about each tropical drink. Their Painkiller—a classic rum cocktail with pineapple juice, coconut and OJ—is gorgeous and refreshingly unsweet and fresh flavored. You can pick your level of pain, based on the number of rum shots in the glass.
Chitarra Aglio Olio with Ember-Cooked Egg, Trentina
It’s hard to pick a dish that wasn’t my favorite at this wildly creative Italian restaurant from chef Jonathon Sawyer. But here’s one: the supple, chewy housemade chitarra in a garlicky bath of hot oil with chile flakes. Sawyer garnishes it with a runny yolked egg that he carefully cooks in coals before setting on top of the pasta.
Spicy Jerky, J & J Czuchraj Meats
In Cleveland’s iconic West Side Market, Symon took me to a stall with a name I couldn’t pronounce—Czuchraj. Theirs is made from thick strips of brisket that’s doused with teriyaki sauce, garlic and a ton of cayenne. It’s chewy at the ends but steak-like in the center; Symon said it was barbecue on a stick, and he was oh so right.
Beef Cheek Pierogi, Lola Bistro
When Symon launched his flagship bistro in 1997, one of his original signature dishes was beef cheek pierogi. “We originally called them pot roast pierogis because back then, you couldn’t sell beef cheeks,” he says. They’re still on Lola’s menu and they’re outrageously good. The tender pan-fried dumplings are overstuffed with tender, fatty meat and topped with wild mushrooms.
Potato Pierogis, Sokolowskis
Clearly, I was on a pierogi diet in Cleveland. This amazing restaurant is over 90 years old and pays full tribute to the city’s Polish heritage. Guests line up, grab a brown tray (everything in Sokolowskis is brown) and walk down a line that starts with plastic-wrapped pies and moves on to dishes like Salisbury steak and city chicken, which is actually fried pork. The potato-stuffed pierogis will catch your eye—they’re massive and kind of dumpy, sitting in a buttery onion bath. They’re magnificent all by themselves, or with a side of (brown) gravy.