The scene: Cleveland has enjoyed a dramatic urban revival in the past few years, with new hotels, attractions, restaurants, the greatly expanded Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and suddenly successful sports teams playing downtown. It has also produced a surprisingly rich roster of home grown chefs, and at the top of the heap is beloved hometown culinary hero Michael Symon. While Symon made his name in fine dining (and continues to do so), he also has a great casual Midwestern chain of burger, bratwurst and craft beer eateries called the B Spot, with a dedication to regional flair, which this column visited a few years back and enjoyed. Symon introduced his high-profile take on Cleveland-style barbecue with Mabel’s BBQ in 2016.
Mabel’s occupies a prime spot in the heart of Cleveland’s restaurant row, pedestrianized East 4th Street downtown, where top area chefs like Symon, Jonathan Sawyer and Zack Bruell have their flagships, Lola Bistro, Greenhouse Tavern and Chinato, respectively. It is a big, deep, two-level space, with a loft half the size of the ground floor upstairs, overlooking the long bar that runs down one side, with about 15 stools. The rest of the seating is a mix of communal and individual heavy wooden tables, and the space has a lively food market meets road house atmosphere. The walls are a mix of brick and barnboard, there is split cord wood piled everywhere, with a lot of buzz and really high ceilings. Given how big the space is, there’s not too much seating, which may be why there was a line out the door for months after it opened. It still gets jammed on weekends and whenever there is a big event at the nearby Quicken Loans Arena (NBA) or Progressive Field (MLB). Behind the bar are enormous menu boards stretching the height of the building (the size of highway billboards) covered with meaty menu details. Symon is the author of several cookbooks including Carnivore, full of “recipes for meat lovers,” and Mabel’s is distinctly meat centric, from head-to-tail butchery to the choices displayed.
In the two decades since Symon was named one of the country’s Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine, the Cleveland native and Culinary Institute of America (CIA) grad has won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes, a daytime Emmy for The Chew, and is a frequent guest on several Cooking Channel and ABC shows, including Iron Chef America, Food Feud and The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Reason to visit: Pork spare ribs, beef brisket and just about every side.
PHOTOS | Inside Michael Symon's new Cleveland restaurant: Mabel's BBQ
The food: Mabel’s is a real barbecue joint, with just about every type of meat and a big smoker hidden in the back burning wood sourced in Ohio, mostly cherry with a bit of apple, and patient slow smoking — 12 to 14 hours for the brisket. It has a clear chef-driven influence and sub-focus on the Midwest. The sauce is made from scratch, sides are carefully crafted, and there is a lot of seasonality to the menu, like creamed corn cut off whole cobs in August and September, heirloom tomato salad in summer and fall, lots of carrots and beets later in the fall, and so on.
Cleveland is known for its Eastern European culinary roots, so Symon cleverly subs rye bread slices for the white bread that traditionally accompanies barbecue meat platters in Texas, a subtle but winning touch, with the bread sourced from the city’s famous European-style West Side Market. At all his restaurants, Symon is a champion of specialty local purveyors, and here he features sauerkraut and pickles from artisans Cleveland Kraut and Cleveland Pickle. Symon’s house barbecue sauce is a riff on the classic eastern Carolina mustard-based version using Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard, perhaps Cleveland’s most famous and iconic original food product. Other local specialties include the Polish Girl sandwich, spicy or classic kielbasa topped with chopped pork and cole slaw, a big messy knife and fork affair; and the “This is Cleveland” platter, combing kielbasa and spare ribs with spicy pork studded cabbage. There’s also spaetzle mini-dumplings with cabbage as a side dish.
At the end of the day, it’s about delicious sides and lots of meat, and Mabel’s will wow any barbecue fan, whether they love the Midwestern accents or not. The vast menu includes all the biggies — beef brisket, pork ribs, chopped pork and turkey — and many less common offerings such as gigantic beef ribs, lamb ribs, pork belly, and an entire appetizer section of the menu devoted to Pig Parts, including crispy tails, crispy ears and cracklings, or pork skin. Many visitors feel these are must tries simply for their oddity, and the best of the bunch is the tails, which are very tender, rich and fatty.
These really need some booze to cut the fat, and Symon delivers with perhaps the lengthiest whiskey list you will ever see at a barbecue joint, including two pages of Scotch, bourbon, rye, corn, wheat, Canadian, Irish and even Japanese whiskey labels, many rare or allocated bourbons, and private barrel selections just for Mabel’s, plus lots of signature brown spirit cocktails. There is also a wine list, huge beer and cider section, and a couple dozen beers on draught, including Symon Says, a Belgian Pale Ale made with the chef’s recipe by local Platform Beer Company and available only here and at the B Spot. The pig ears are weirdly chewy and crispy at the same time, but overall surprisingly good, while the cracklings are lighter, crunchy and less greasy but not especially tasty.
The rest of the menu really shines — smoked meats, sides and salads skew towards exceptional. The tomato salad in season is just killer, bursting with ripe flavor and a winning touch of spicy horseradish; Mabel’s-style potatoes are simple, perfectly crispy and really good; glazed fresh local carrots are exceptional; broccoli salad is jazzed up with peanuts and dried cherries; and the stuffing, made with the same local rye bread, plus mushrooms, carrots and onions, is just a stellar barbecue side you won’t find anyplace else. Symon is not shy about adding meat to his veggie sides: the baked beans have chopped brisket (and jalapeño), while the hot collard greens and kale include bacon.
The meats blow me away, especially the pork spare ribs, which are excellent and perfectly cooked, juicy, tender without being soft, and very meaty. They are heavily dry rubbed and have tons of flavor before you apply any sauce (they don’t need any and all the meats are served dry). The secret is that they are glazed in the smoker with a mix of pickle juice and brown sugar and the result is amazing — these are among the best ribs you can eat in America.
Most places excel at either ribs or brisket, and Symon does great with both — the beef is hand sliced extra thick, juicy, fatty and delicious. While beef ribs, a rarity and personal favorite of mine, are never small, these are about the biggest I’ve ever seen with no chance of picking them up. Requiring utensils, the ribs are very well seasoned with dry rub and cooked to the perfect tenderness. Interestingly, while I love pork belly and consider it an underutilized cut in the world of barbecue and smoke it myself at home, it is the least interesting entrée here. It's pretty fatty and just good, but the exceptional ribs and standout brisket more than make up for it.
Everything is served on butcher paper-covered metal trays and portions are pretty huge. The food looks good and tastes good, the sides all have fine-dining influences, and it is hard to go wrong. If at all possible, leave room for dessert. Symon offers just puddings in three styles, including a fresh, delicious and refined take on the most classic Southern barbecue sweet there is: banana pudding. The odd versions are more interesting: a two-layer pudding take on key lime pie with graham crackers and toasted coconut that offers a bit of tropical lightness and tartness, and the decadent chocolate pudding with salty, addictive, perfectly contrasting toffee popcorn. While you will likely be full no matter what you order at Mabel’s BBQ, these puddings are a nice reprieve from the enormous slabs of cake or pie many other barbecue spots offer and a fitting close to a delicious meal.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, for barbecue fans this is an instant addition to the nation’s pantheon of must-visit spots, especially for the ribs.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 2050 East 4th Street, Cleveland, OH; 216-417-8823; mabelsbbq.com
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.