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.
As we stroll along, Symon reminisces about opening Lola almost 20 years ago, when 4th Street was a dirt road. Now it's lined with bistros and modern pubs. But there are still places around the city—many of them meat-centric—that have remained relatively unchanged, and he's taking me on a tour. His black SUV is parked behind Lola. "Let's go," he says.
When Symon was young, he'd go to the West Side Market with his grandfather Preston. "I don't remember what stands we went to," says Symon. "I was too short to see the signs." At Dohar Meats, we taste Hungarian headcheese, Canadian smoked bacon and, best of all, spicy double-smoked bacon. "The meat stands at West Side Market are good, but when they start smoking the meat, that's craft," notes Symon. We wander over to Czuchraj Meats ("Call it J&J," Symon suggests when I can't pronounce it). He discovered their plush, peppery beef jerky in his twenties: "The beautiful smell of smoked meat enticed me." Co-owner Jill Czuchraj screams when she sees Symon. "We get a lot of celebrities; he's the best one," she says. "They send big bags of jerky to The Chew, and Mario [Batali] and I kill it," says Symon, laughing, as he frequently does. "We sit there eating and sweating until it's gone."
Near West Side Market is Great Lakes Brewing Co. When it opened in the '80s in a location that housed one of Cleveland's oldest bars, Market Tavern, the area was rough, says Symon: "Great Lakes stopped it from being the Wild West." Now they make award-winning brews. Symon, who self-identifies as a beer guy, orders a Burning River Pale Ale. I get the Eliot Ness lager and listen to the story behind it: In the '40s, Ness, the famed Prohibition enforcer, allegedly stopped at Market Tavern for a drink; someone shot at him. There are still bullet holes in the wall and now a BANG! flag on the mahogany bar.
On line at the classic Polish cafeteria Sokolowski's University Inn, I stand behind a 90-year-old gentleman. "They recently renovated this place," the man tells me. Symon, who has eaten here since he was a kid, says, "That was maybe 15 years ago." The 93-year-old restaurant has fluorescent lighting, lots of laminated wood and a steam table with the greatest hits of Eastern European cooking, from smoked kielbasa to stuffed cabbage and sautéed potato pierogies. Symon gets pulled behind the counter by Mary Balbier, who can't stop hugging him. She gives us T-shirts made of sturdy cotton in bright Easter egg colors. "I've accumulated 100 Sokolowski's T-shirts over the years," says Symon, "in every color of the rainbow."
"I've been going to Raddell's Sausage Shop for a long, long time," says Symon. No wonder: The Slovenian market, which opened in the '70s, is known for its meats. On a kitchen tour we see the sausages, from thin andouille to plump bratwurst, some being dried by a cheap plastic fan. We order Slovenian pork sausage with kraut for $3.49; the register is under the sign vegetarian: an old western word meaning lousy hunter. Among the newer spots that Symon frequents is Happy Dog. The unconventional hot dog joint serves locally made franks with a checklist of 50 toppings, from pork and beans to Froot Loops. Happy Dog offers an ode to the chef: the Symon dog, with homemade peanut butter and green pickle relish.