If the name Michael Symon doesn't ring a bell, you probably don't watch food-centric TV shows, & you're definitely not from Cleveland. This TV chef personality, who is one of the co-host of The Chew, might seem like the New York type, but he's actually a good old Midwestern boy from the CLE, with four successful restaurants to his name here in his hometown.
Last month, Symon finally opened Mabel's BBQ, filling the last piece of empty real estate in downtown Cleveland's East 4th Street corridor. And this weekend, I finally tried it out.
My friend Rebecca was visiting from NYC, & I thought she'd be the perfect person for this dinner adventure. We met Mike just after work on a Friday, & although their policy is only to seat full parties, the hostess was kind enough to seat us despite the fact that Mike was running a few minutes late. "We're filling up quickly," she told us, "so as long as he's nearby, let's go ahead & get you a table!" She led us to a table upstairs, next to a balcony that overlooks the entirety of the restaurant, with a great view of the urban industrial space.
First, I ordered a $9 French Toast Manhattan (Ezra Brooks bourbon, maple, hazelnut liqueur, & walnut bitters), & it was love at first sip, truly. But what about the food?
Everything at Mabel's is a la carte, so while the meat is served with pickle slices, Cleveland kraut, & a slice of white bread, it doesn't come with sides. There are lots to choose from, though none of them is mac & cheese, the side I most typically associate with BBQ. A week ago, when I mentioned my no-mac sadness in an Instagram convo with a couple other locals, a Mabel's bartenders chimed in:
"He's trying To create 'Cleveland bbq' not bbq you can get everywhere else. Since Cleveland has so much eastern European influence, he's using that in a lot of things at Mabels. I don't think Mac and cheese really fits any of that."Is it just me, or does that feel snarky? I responded with, "I like mac & cheese with my BBQ, what can I say? Maybe I'm not highbrow enough for European influenced BBQ," complete with a winking emoji. Foodies, amirite? But even without a mac & cheese option, I loved the sides I chose: one of baked beans with chopped brisket & jalapeños & another of spaetzle & spicy cabbage, which was the winner in my book (& stomach).
Indeed, Symon says he's inventing a new kind of BBQ, aptly named "Cleveland-style." Everything is applewood smoked because Ohio has so many apple orchards, & he says he'd never serve tomato-based BBQ sauce because most ketchup is made in Pittsburgh. More on that in a second...
Mabel's standalone meat option are brisket, pork belly, turkey breast, kielbasa, & ribs (pork, lamb, or beef). Like I said, I don't do bones or fat, so the ribs & pork belly were out, which led me to the brisket, served fatty or lean (guess which I chose). The meat arrived dry & perfectly smoked, with both BBQ sauce & habanero sauce on the table to use at will. Forgive the dark photo; I swear this food looked delectable:
The sauce at Mabel's is mustard-based, using the Cleveland-made brand Bertman's. I actually loathe mustard, & I'd never had BBQ sauce that wasn't sweet & thick, so Mabel's unique sauce was a bit of a shock to the system: thin, liquidy, & yellow, with a heavy vinegar taste. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it - so much that I slathered my brisket in it & inhaled the whole damn thing (after cutting off the fat). It was like no BBQ sauce I've ever tried.
Unfortunately, my sometimes-sensitive stomach didn't love it as much as my taste buds did, & I spent much of Friday night & all day Saturday battling severe stomach issues. I have some serious acid erosion issues in this here gut, which means that eating anything highly acidic can throw me off for days - & boy, did Mabel's mess me up. I'm disappointed because, frankly, I hadn't expected to like Mabel's as much as I did - & I really did. I'd be happy to go back, but I'd have to take it reeeeeal easy on the sauce. For that reason alone, I wish they had a tomato-based option - though I'm sure that Instagram bartender would chide me for saying so. *winking emoji*
In short: Mabel's was tasty, but I probably won't head back of my own volition. If someone wanted to try it out, I'd join them, though, or maybe I'll just stop by for a happy hour treat of a French Toast Manhattan with a side of spaetzle... Regardless, I'm glad to see Mabel's up & running downtown. Hometown boy Michael Symon is one of the top chefs in the CLE, & I'm thrilled that his newest project is bringing something a little bit different to the table - literally!