Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Off the Map: Let's Pretend This Post Is Not About Jerky

Beef Jerky -- J&J Czuchraj Meats, Cleveland, OH
J&J Czuchraj Meats

Sadly, we have come to the end of Vodka and Mezcal's trip to Cleveland, otherwise known as their new favorite place on earth.
Their Tourism Bureau Should Really Send Us a Check
And even more sadly, the only dish we have left to eat is... jerky.
Going Out with a Bang... or a Whimper
Here's the thing about jerky: Vodka doesn't like it. Actually, "doesn't like it" is mild, as she finds the stuff -- even the most gourmet of varieties -- fairly offensive in both texture and taste.
Our Hotel Decor Seems to Be Cheering Us On
But what's a girl to do when Michael Symon, the King of All Things Believeland, chooses J&J Czuchraj Meats' beef jerky on the SALTY GOODNESS episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate? The answer is buy the smallest amount possible, stuff it in your friend's bag, and pretend it doesn't exist for the next 24-48 hours.
No Offense, Dried Meat, But We're Just Not That Into You
In truth, poor Mezcal's bag began reeking of jerky when we consumed an entire gyro in one fell swoop at the Westside Market. At the time, we were rather underwhelmed by our J&J/Czuchraj Meats experience, first because there were two different stands with different names but the same exact offerings, second because the guy manning stand one answered a phone call in the middle of our ordering process, and third because he didn't fall for our ploy of handing over a sample when we asked for the most minuscule jerky order possible.
So Here's the J&J Component...

...Not to Be Outdone by the Czuchraj Component Five Stands Away...
Based on her general abhorrence of all things jerky, Vodka procrastinates tasting the stuff so as to not ruin Cleveland's streak of Best Thing I Ever Ate glory, one unimpressive fizzy cocktail notwithstanding.
Frankly, Those Smokies Look Like They May Have More Potential
And so, in an effort not to dilute our love of Cleveland with an uninspired review of a food we don't even enjoy, let's pretend this post isn't about jerky at all. Instead, let's talk about the man behind the whole reason for this trip, Michael Symon, and more importantly, his restaurant, Lola.
She Was a Showgirl
Lola is, in a word, awesome. The food is heavenly, the drinks are strong, and the service is as welcoming as Michael's TV persona.
Any Place That Serves Beef Cheek Pierogies Is Fine By Us
In fact, after our waiter hears that the only reason for our relatively minimal food choices is because we've been to every one of Michael's Best Thing I Ever Ate picks in two days, he adds to our imminent stomachache by throwing in a free dessert -- which, let it be known, just may be the first free anything Vodka has ever procured that was not prefaced by a stern complaint to the management.
That In Itself May Be the Biggest Miracle of Cleveland
By the time we waltz -- or roll, depending on who you ask -- out of Lola, Vodka is busy singing Hamilton songs about her newfound favorite GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD. And therefore, when we eventually try the infamous jerky during our 7:30am airport breakfast the next morning, the fact that it is highly smoky, highly spicy, probably great for jerky lovers but completely lost on us, is almost irrelevant.
Between This and The Leftover Guacamole, the TSA Must Have Loved Us

We Won't Hold It Against Ohio's Fair City That This Is Our Parting Shot
Because at the end of the day, not only has Cleveland reached the highest Best Thing I Ever Ate average of all time, but it has also succeeded in being the most surprisingly enjoyable city we have ever visited. And those weighty qualities alone are worth tons more than a quarter-pound of jerky.

J&J Czuchraj Meats's Beef Jerky: 3 stars

Monday, November 6, 2017

Off the Map: Drink, You'll Feel Better

Sage and Bleu Cheese Guacamole -- Lopez Southwestern Kitchen, Cleveland, OH
Lopez Southwestern Kitchen

Mezcal has tapped out.
Pull It Together! Your Name is MEZCAL!
Nine Best Thing I Ever Ate dishes into Cleveland -- not to mention assorted extras along the way -- has put her down for the count by the time we reach the patio of Lopez Southwestern Kitchen, and she is stuffed to the gills.
Not Pictured: Mezcal Trailing Behind Vodka at a Snail's Pace
Forgoing an aptly named tequila drink, she orders a Diet Coke, while Vodka looks on with an aghast expression.
To Be Fair, Perhaps a Manhattan Is Also an Odd Thing to Order in a Mexican Restaurant, but Still
"Drink, you'll feel better," Vodka doles out her version of life advice, but Mezcal is stubborn in her fullness. 
Hello, Are Any of You Drinking? Care to be Vodka's New Friend?
With the stamina of an underfed goat, Vodka plows through in ordering the guacamole that Michael Symon recommended on the TOTALLY UNEXPECTED episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate
Vodka Is Nothing If Not a Completist
Now, on the show, the guac was described as featuring "sage and bleu cheese," while in execution, the only bleu cheese-inclusive offering combines the substance with bacon rather than sage.
Excuse Us, Have You Any Sage Back There You Can Sprinkle On Top?
Because who needs any pesky herbs when you can add pork fat to the proceedings?
It's Like Cleveland Is Punking Us
For the first time since arrival in Ohio, we leave the provided chips and salsa untouched on the table while waiting for the guacamole to arrive, and when it does, we look at it rather hesitantly -- much more so due to the rumblings of grilled cheese lasagna still sloshing around our intestines than because of any fault on the guac's part. 
The Only Bag of Chips North of the Mason/Dixon Line We Haven't Consumed This Weekend
Thick slabs of diced bacon sprinkle the top of the avocado dip, with poofs of bleu cheese peeking out from its center. Along with even more chips, the dish features pickled vegetables, which Mezcal reaches for like she's never seen a farmer's market before.
Cleveland's Penchant Toward Vegetables Is Evidenced By the Size of That Corn
As Michael Symon had declared, this guacamole is unexpectedly good. Much like the peanut butter, alien relish, and sriacha hot dog, on paper, it does not sound like these ingredients should go together, but they are deceptively pleasing in creating a richer, saltier guacamole. 
And A Little Salt Never Hurt Anything
However, despite our enjoyment of its taste, barely a quarter of the way into the bowl, we wave the white flag, officially surrendering to the Cleveland food gods. To Lopez Southwestern Kitchen's great credit, our waiter does not even blink when we ask for the remainder of our one dish to go, and he packages it for us along with two large, unopened bags of corn chips. 
Guacamole That Survived the TSA
We cart this to-go bag not only back to our hotel, but all the way back to New York City, where a full day later, Vodka relishes a final taste of Cleveland goodness from the sanctity of her couch. And of course, she had a drink with her Ohio leftovers, just to feel better.

Lopez Southwestern's Kitchen's Sage and Bleu Cheese Guacamole: 4 stars

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Off the Map: Any Mustard, Mayo, Hot Sauce? Yes

The Godfather -- Melt Bar and Grilled, Cleveland, OH
Melt Bar and Grilled

First our Cleveland Lyft drivers were apologizing for the city's air quality, and now they're wishing us luck as they drop us at restaurants, as if they know we're about to eat our seventeenth meal of the day.
Or Maybe the Sign Alone Made Him Suspicious of What We Were In For
To be fair, the godfather sandwich we are about to consume at Melt Bar and Grilled, as chosen by Anne Thornton on the MESSY episode, is our only second Best Thing I Ever Ate establishment, but our fifth overall (yes, even when not being forced to eat and drink by the Food Network, we show up at additional places). 
This Queso? Not Featured on Any List. Just Needed a Snack
Immediately, Melt is not exactly what we had expected, since based on the fact that it's a chain, Vodka pictured something akin to the grilled cheese version of Chipotle, and this is more reminiscent of a TGI Friday's. 
In Case We Forgot What City We Were In
We belly up to a corner of the bar and place our order, and while waiting, Mezcal asks Vodka if she'd finally like to try the beef jerky Mezcal has been hauling around in her bag ever since our visit to the Westside Market
A Good Indication of How Eager We've Been to Eat the Stuff
"Oh no. No, I can't do that here. I can't take two sets of notes," Vodka says with complete earnestness, as if we're the food versions of Woodward and Bernstein, rather than two girls eating their way through Cleveland for blog posts that only Ginger will read.
Plus, Vodka Is Busy Documenting the GIANT BOX OF MAC AND CHEESE ON THE WALL
The sandwich soon arrives, and it is a carb-on-carb dream or nightmare, depending on how eager one is to consume bread, pasta, and cheese in a single bite. 
This Looks Amazing and/or Terrifying
Gargantuan in size, thick slices of lasagna are bordered by even thicker slices of garlic bread and accompanied by a solid helping of fries and two pickles ("They gave us each a pickle -- very thoughtful!")
Plus, Fries, Because Heaven Knows We Haven't Eaten Enough Potatoes Yet
As Vodka begins to document this sandwich in photograph form, the server asks, "Any mustard, mayo, hot sauce?" and is greeted by utter silence, as we are both seemingly too intent on getting down to eating. 
To Be Fair, Based on Their Menu, Pretty Sure the Melt Staff Are Used to People Being Overwhelmed
Repeating the question, which Vodka is inexplicably incapable of understanding even the second time (and for the record, there was nary a cocktail in sight), she responds with a noncommittal, "Yes." We are soon surrounded by not only an army's worth of condiments, but an entire box of napkins, as if to prove the point that this sandwich was featured on the MESSY episode for a reason.
Thanks for the Faith in Our Ability to Not Spill on Ourselves
The sandwich itself, while it appears on the surface to be nothing more than something to epitomize the height of gluttony, is shockingly quite tasty. 
What's Lasagna Without Parmesan Cheese Sprinkled on Top?
The garlic bread is soft enough to keep the lasagna from sliding out in one fell swoop, and while none of the components would be amazing on their own, together, they make an interesting, if outrageous,  combination.
If Only We Were Hungrier Right Now. Cut to: Empty Plate
And in what is becoming a pattern in Cleveland, while we initially debate between a 3 and 4 star finish for this dish, once we consume the entire thing, we decide that if it's good enough to polish off after all we have already eaten -- and still have to eat -- today, than it most certainly deserves a 4 star demarcation.
Specifying an Extra Pickle That We Didn't Even Ask For?! New Best Friends
After all, anytime your check arrives with the words "Add pickle to plate" written twice, you know the restaurant has found its way to our hearts, as a pickle is undeniably the greatest of good luck charms.

Melt Bar and Grilled's The Godfather: 4 stars

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Off the Map: Why Cleveland? Why Are You So Perfect?

Corned Beef Hash -- Big Al's Diner, Cleveland, OH
Big Al's Diner

Here's the difference between New York and Cleveland: none of our Lyft drivers in New York have ever, with complete sincerity, apologized for the town's pollution.
And Not for Nothing, the Air Looks Pretty Clean to Us
But in Cleveland, on our way to Big Al's Diner to eat Michael Symon's Best Thing I Ever Ate WAKE UP CALL dish, not only does our driver seemingly take responsibility for the city's fossil fuel emissions, but he also appears concerned about our destination, being that we're driving through some of Cleveland's less scenic neighborhoods to reach it. 
Don't Worry, Driver -- Michael Symon Wouldn't Steer Us Wrong
However, Big Al's itself is straight out of a sitcom diner, albeit one from the late 1950s. 
Would Not Look Out of Place on an Episode of The Honeymooners
After a brief waiting period outside, as the joint is already packed at 9:00am, we are led to a booth where we peruse the placemat which doubles as a menu. 
Please Ignore Vodka's Lipstick Stain
Along with Michael Symon's chosen corned beef hash, we choose the potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, because while already on a weekend food bender, why not go full throttle?
We Won't Be Eating Again for at Least Two Hours So....
While Vodka's coffee cup gets constantly refilled until she's at the point of jitteriness, we anticipate our breakfast's arrival, wondering if the nondescript nature of Big Al's establishment will lead to similarly humdrum food.
A Counter Built for Four
And then the corned beef hash arrives. And it is a thing of beauty.
Putting All Other Diner Dishes to Shame
A warm pile of beef, potatoes, and vegetables rests beneath two perfectly cooked over-easy eggs, framed on either side by four pieces of butter-soaked white bread toast. 
Symmetrical Perfection
After one bite, Vodka douses her half with salt and hot sauce before proceeding to scoop the creation into her mouth with the intensity of a freshly-cleaned Hoover, marveling at the fact that, at Big Al's, even the toast is somehow better than that of any other diner variety.
How? How Does Nothing Go Wrong Here?
When Vodka reluctantly switches plates with Mezcal, who has been enjoying, if not moaning over, the potato pancakes, she does so with a resigned, "I give up. Gonna move here." 
And Probably Gonna Gain 100 Pounds While At It
And while the potato pancakes are also tasty -- they're fried carbs, so what could really go wrong? -- they are nothing compared to the majesty of the corned beef hash, which somehow redefine the surprising perfection that is Cleveland, OH.
Nailed It
No apologies necessary.

Big Al's Diner's Corned Beef Hash: 5 stars*

*Certifiable Best Thing We Ever Ate

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Off the Map: Are You Trying to Make the Michael Symon Dog?

Hot Dog with Peanut Butter, Alien Pickle Relish, Sriacha -- Happy Dog, Cleveland, OH
Happy Dog

By the end of our first full day in Cleveland, Vodka and Mezcal are punchy, and not just because of the number of carbs currently battling their way through their digestive tracks. 
Cleveland, You've Been Good to Us, If Not to Our Waistlines
But before we can retreat for the night (at the rebellious time of 9:07pm), there is one more Best Thing I Ever Ate dish to be conquered, and it's a doozy. You see, on the ALL AMERICAN episode, Michael Symon chose a hot dog from Happy Dog. Now, there are few things we love more in life than a hot dog, which should make this a fairly easy conquest.
Thank Goodness for a Final Easy Dish to Go Calmly Into the Night... 
Only the hot dog Michael picked includes chunky peanut butter, alien pickle relish, and sriacha sauce.
...Or Not
Um, Mr. Symon, exactly how many of those India lime fizzes did you drink before downing this thing?
We Also Ordered a Side, Just In Case We Didn't Eat Enough Today
Happy Dog itself is essentially a dive bar with live music, which thankfully, based on our abhorrence of all things loud, was just about to begin as we were leaving. Orders are checked off by the customers themselves on paper pads featuring every possible type of hot dog combination you can invent, and the entire process is reminiscent of a childhood miniature golf game. 
We've Read Too Many Menus Lately to Deal with This Right Now
We choose the correct components based on Michael's tastes, making a note to ask for sriacha, as specified at the bottom of the pad. And then, mere moments later, we promptly forget to ask for the sriacha. It's been a long day, okay?
And Not For Nothing, We Were a Tad Thrown Off by Ordering Something Called ALIEN GREEN RELISH
Thankfully, our bartender appears to be on to us, as he takes one look at our choice and pipes up, "Are you trying to make the Michael Symon dog? Do you also want sriacha?" Now branded as the Cleveland tourists that we are, our dog arrives soon afterward, along with a basket of beer cheese fondue tots. 
The Inner Workings of the Day's 27th Meal
The hot dog itself is a tad frightening on the surface, especially because the bottom of the bun has split completely open, which Vodka finds more than a little annoying. But, presumably because he is Michael Symon and he has never steered a Cleveland palate wrong, the taste is fairly remarkable. The toppings together, in theory, should not work, but miraculously, they kind of do. And while peanut butter on a hot dog sounded like the opposite of a winner before we entered the premises, by the time we leave, we are squarely a fan.
Looking More Like a Speakeasy Than the Bar That Tried to Be a Speakeasy
We are also a fan of not only the tater tots, but of the Happy Dog bartenders themselves, who are much more reminiscent of the stereotype one would picture from a Clevelander serving a hot dog bar: chill, relaxed, and dressed in flannel.
Velvet Tango Room, Please Take Note
If we hadn't already eaten half our weight in Ohio goodness today, we would have liked to have tried a more "traditional" hot dog, being that the meat itself is some of the best we have ever tasted in encased beef form. But the way things stand, we can't manage to do much more than roll ourselves out the exit, happy as a pig in mud.
In This Case, the Pig Analogy Is Literal
Happy Dog's Hot Dog with Peanut Butter, Alien Pickle Relish, Sriacha: 4 stars