Walking down East 4th Street in Cleveland with chef Michael Symon, I get an idea of what it would be like to go to basketball camp with LeBron James. Symon can't go more than a few steps before being stopped by someone who wants to express love for him, his restaurants or his latest escapades on the daytime TV show The Chew. Then that fan inevitably asks to take a picture. In a two-block stretch around Symon's flagship, Lola—and just a few blocks away from the Quicken Loans Arena, where LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers play—Symon costars in 10 selfies, always with the same ear-to-ear smile.
East 4th Street is also the location of Symon's new barbecue joint, Mabel's BBQ, a vast space with two custom-built J&R smokers and a Midwestern focus. As Mabel's proves, Symon is a huge Cleveland booster. Born and raised in the city, he became the first Ohio-based F&W Best New Chef when he won the award in 1998. His empire now includes the B Spot burger chain, with several locations across Cleveland. "For me, the root is always meat," says Symon. "I play with Italian and Greek food—that's my heritage—but there's always gonna be meat." B Spot is known for meat-on-meat burgers, like the pastrami-topped Fat Doug, but Symon makes allowances for people who want only so much beef and pork. His Atomic cheeseburger has no extra meat; it does have a seasoning of incendiary ghost chile salt.
At Mabel's BBQ, Symon wants to make Midwestern barbecue legitimate. "Eastern European butchers and all their sausages and smoked meat—they're the original barbecue guys," he says about the men behind the counters at Cleveland's time-honored butcher shops. "At Mabel's, instead of hot links, we're doing kielbasa." For his Polish Boy sandwich, he tops grilled kielbasa with a barbecue sauce based on Stadium Mustard, a Cleveland specialty; he also adds a handful of fries.