Barbecue aficionados are familiar by now with the main styles of American BBQ: sweet, saucy Kansas City and Memphis ribs, mustard-based South Carolina pulled pork, tomato-based Texas brisket, and vinegary North Carolina whole or chopped hog. But a new BBQ place in Cleveland is hoping to both invent and put “Cleveland Style BBQ” on the map. Mabel’s BBQ (2050 E 4th St, Cleveland, OH) is the brainchild of Cleveland-born chef Michael Symon, who decided to up and create “Cleveland-style” BBQ based on the diverse cultural influences in Cleveland cuisine. The downtown restaurant opened about two months ago – after nearly a year-long delay – to much fanfare. As a result, waiting times have been long since the opening.
When we turned up on a Monday at 7 we had to wait about 25 minutes, but we were determined to see what all the hype is about. The restaurant is rustic-chic with a large neon sign imploring you to “Eat More Meat” and even though the cavernous ceilings make the place seem big, there is not much seating in this new temple to Cleveland BBQ. Symon’s Cleveland-style BBQ meat and sides all are made with nods to the region’s landscape and cultural heritage. The mustard base in the vinegary sauce serves as a nod to Cleveland’s long history of German and central-European immigration (which is also why South Carolina style sauce has mustard). The ‘cue is smoked over apple and cherry woods, both common trees local to the area. Finally, the meat’s flavors shine through a thick salt and pepper rub.
Mabel’s serves three different kinds of ribs (lamb, pork and “giant” beef), sandwiches, or meats (brisket, pork belly, turkey, or sausage) by the pound. You can also get a riff on the Cleveland-original Polish boy sandwich (sausage on a roll with fries and coleslaw), or a platter called “This is Cleveland”: a plate of kielbasa and ribs served with sauerkraut. We decided to go with brisket. Our server informed us they only had the lean end left (we liked being told this because – blasphemously – we prefer the lean end) and the lamb ribs. The platter also comes with two slices of plain white bread (which is a nod to no-nonsense Southern Style BBQ) and pickled cabbage and bread and butter pickles.
The sides are decidedly different than what you would expect in a traditional Southern-style BBQ restaurant, and there is a proliferation of pickling and Eastern-European touches. Sides included: Beet salad, sour cream cucumber salad, Johnathan Waxman-inspired home fries, hot collard greens with pork, broccoli salad, and spaetzle and cabbage. Each of the sides is $6, perhaps a tad expensive for the size you get. Symon previously said he would not create a mac and cheese for the restaurant (which we consider a deadly sin), so we also decided to sample the distant cousin – a German spaetzle egg noodles and cabbage (below) – instead, which was probably as much as we’ve liked cabbage, but was still a little bland. Of the sides, we especially liked the broccoli salad which had a good dill flavor and a hint of sweetness from dried cherries.The barbecue arrived after about 20 minutes, and we dove right in. The highlight of the platter was the brisket, hands down. Even though the brisket was from the lean end, it was still moist and juicy, and had a really nice bark. The lamb ribs were heavily spiced with Greek seasonings, and while delicious, contained very little meat in comparison to pork ribs (which our server had warned us about). We should also say something about the sauce – it is somewhat a meld of North and South Carolina styles – mustard-based, but rather thin with a heavy helping of vinegar. Though the sauce was good, neither of the meats really needed it, which is the sign of some good BBQ.
If you have any room left, there are three puddings available for dessert: banana, chocolate and key lime. M went with his favorite, the banana pudding, which came layered with homemade whipped cream and a homemade take on the essential Nilla wafers. The pudding was tasty, but we were secretly hoping for some pie! Bourbon and Whiskey lovers will also not be disappointed, since the drink menu has a large, diverse selection, along with craft beers. Mabel’s BBQ is definitely worth a stop for any BBQ lover, especially if you are in the mood for brisket. We also appreciate the inventiveness of “Cleveland-style” BBQ, which seems to fit perfectly in a town where food options are increasing by the day. Just be prepared for a wait.