Crossing Cleveland’s Cuyahoga from a Faux Jewish Deli to a Real Italian Joint with a Flight in Between

After a bit of a break, the request to pay my $25 renewal fee for my web domain reminded me that I need to at least attempt to justify the cost to keep the name and a recent jaunt down to the Midwest seems a perfect start to the new fiscal year.

The intent was to eat my way through parts of Ohio starting in Cleveland and ending in Columbus.  As usual, these gluttonous escapades usually encompass a combination of James Beard nominees, triple D’s and some degree of celebrity chef stalking. I’m no stranger to the city of Rock and Roll but the Buckeye city is new to me.

I figured there was no better place to start than Ohio City, the trendy Cleveland suburb on the West side of the Cuyahoga river. The plan was to head to the Larder Delicatessen and Bakery, a deli nominated as a James Beard semifinalist in the best new restaurant category this year.  Set in a old firehouse, the interior looked like a library of hipster libations. Bottles of homemade palatable potions lined the walls and the utensils were shelved atop an antique stove tucked away in the corner. Despite the cooler full of kosher pickles and deli salads, it’s hard to call this a true Jewish deli.  Sure, I could have ordered gefilte fish or rugulach as well but there was no shortage of pork on the menu either.  In fact, I opted for a from scratch pork shoulder Reuben.  The bologna sandwich, which I assumed contained some sort of non-cud chewing creature but was too afraid to ask, was also unorthodox…at least in Cleveland terms.  It seems a standard Cleveland Bologna sandwich is adorned with lettuce, tomato and mayo whereas Larder’s take used carrots and old (sharp) cheddar.  Despite the deviations, both sandwiches were creative and thoughtful and demonstrated the from scratch mentality reminiscent of the phenomenal Reuben at Lucky’s cafe a few miles down the road.

Satisfied with foodstuffs, I wanted to tickle my thirst sensors with a jaunt back down the road to Bookhouse Brewing on W 25th.   This time the walls were donned with books instead of bottles and games instead of gherkins.  It seemed sensible to opt for a sampler of drafts which included Life in a Northern Town (the word northern is certainly subjective given my home town is over 800 km north of Ohio City although it could be paying homage to the 1985 Dream Academy song), Study Session IPA (a reminder of the many university exam cramming sessions that ended up with a pint in hand), Bricks and Mortar (such a hipster term)  and a brilliant Key Lime Three out of Five Gose. The experiment lead to a couple of Crowlers (specifically the first two), a 32 ounce emperor can spun to seal after filling.  I figured downing a half gallon of Key Lime would have been like eating a whole pie vs just a slice.

I had no idea as to the importance of summer family reunions in US culture.  Upon checking into the Embassy suites that night in Cleveland’s Beachwood area, I realized the lobby was inundated with red, yellow and green shirts representing a few clusters of families from all over America.  When I asked the bartender later that night, she informed me that a chunk of summer banquet business are family reunions and outlined the normal itinerary; meet, mingle (plus/minus argument), picnic, formal dinner, church and/or depart depending on the amount of time it takes to get home.  In fact, she was not attending her own reunion given the fact it was in Jacksonville, Florida which was too far and much too humid.

Dinner plans included a conquest of my only outstanding Diner, Drive-In and Dive in Cleveland.  Geraci’s, a long standing Italian joint originated in the University Heights area, recently opened a second location in Pepper Pike.  Although not the original and official DDD location, I chose the latter because it was a lot closer to the hotel and took reservations.   I felt like a little less of a cheater when I saw Guy’s smiling face hanging on the wall.

Geraci’s followed the classic Italian restaurant blueprint; bread, salad (Americanized with shredded mozzarella cheese), pizza, pasta and a handful of classic Italian desserts.  However, with a number of clever cocktails and craft beer on the menu, they did colour outside the lines a bit which did remind me that I wasn’t at the likes of  Tony V’s in Sudbury.  For example, cute clothes pins and Ohio’s own Raspberry-infused Watershed Gin resulted in a creation that was another notch on my pink drink bedpost.

Guy’s promise of great pepperoni was fulfilled on a simple pizza with some added sausage.  The crust was a bit on the crunchy side and overall the excessive saltiness was somewhat saved by the fresh vibrant sauce.  The same sauce was the basis of a very classic and delicious lasagna which would be the same way to describe the tiramisu.

In the end, it was a good day with a game of true and false, some sudsy studies and an old school Italian place which had a family vibe that partially replaced being left out of the multitude of family reunions at the hotel I was at. With the Cleveland core surrounded, day two would involve a trip downtown in search of another brew or two and a maybe a game of Symon says.

From Massachusetts to Maine: Traffic, Burgers, Unattainable IPAs and Big Ass Desserts all Within an Area with a Single Republican Electoral Vote.

My annual summer pilgrimage usually involves a trip to the US to explore everything from geography to good eats. This year, I thought a venture to Maine would be a quaint way to travel the US for over 1100 km and only setting foot in a geography responsible for one Republican electoral vote. Other than Nebraska, Maine is the only state which can split electoral votes and the North part of the state decided to opt for a Trump agenda.  I would have gladly avoided it if not for my desire to live my childhood dream of to see Stephen King’s house and many of the inspirations for the many book of his I read as a teenager.

Before trekking too far east, our first stop was the small shopping town of Rhinebeck, New York which was my first indication that every friggin’ person in the Northeast drives a Subaru.  Every small town seemed to have a flagship dealership and the inhabitants have Foresters, Outbacks and Legacys crammed in their parking lots.   The main purpose was to check out Samuel’s Sweet shop.  As a Walking Dead fan, I first heard about this place when Jeremy Dean Morgan (aka Negan) was interviewed on Howard Stern.  Morgan, in addition to running a farm which includes rescued alpacas, purchased the candy shop along with Paul Rudd to prevent it from closing.  Although it’s tough to find many references to them on the shop’s website, you can purchase a custom made Rice Krispy square with their pictures on a canvas of edible icing.  There is also great coffee, many nostalgic treats and my personal favorite, handmade pecan bourbon caramels from local confectioner Lauralei’s kitchen.  They were ridiculously addictive, triggering the part of the brain probably related to sex, gambling and/or some kind of drug addiction.

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Goods from lauralei’s kitchen in the Hudson Valley

The GPS promised that the trip from Rhinebeck, New York to Bangor, Maine was about 6.5 hours but that was definitely fake news. The next stop was Springfield, Massachusetts.  Although many have pulled into town to visit the basketball hall of fame, my interest was White Hut, the iconic burger shack which has been around since the beginning of World War II.  Famous for their grilled onions, the burger here has been ranked number three on Thrillist’s top 100.  As I waited the woman at the grill said “Listen to me carefully.  What do you want on the burger?”  It made me wish that all people were that clear and politely blunt as I think it would make restaurant excursions a hell of a lot smoother.  I’m not sure it was the best burger in the US but the whole experience made me glad i veered off the highway.

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White Hut Burger Picture (taken from Thrillist Site)

What I wasn’t glad about was my attempt to score some IPA at the Tree House Brewing Company in Charlton, MA.  Like most of the ill-fated trip to Maine, this was a bit of a disaster.  I was optimistic with the Thrillist promise that “thanks to a recently completed expansion, it has finally become *that much easier* to get your hands on a few cans of their flagship IPA, Julius.  What I thought was going to be a quick in and out at 130 on a Friday afternoon turned into a jaw dropping experience.  There was a shuttle bringing people from the bottom parking lot to the top one and literally hundreds of people in line.  It was like a modern day Woodstock 150 miles further east with long beards instead of long hair, IPA instead of LSD and hops instead of hope.

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A line similar to the one I didn’t get into at Tree House Brewing…taken from Steve Garfield’s Flickr account

My plans to reach Bangor with remaining daylight were foiled by horrific traffic jams and a few wrong terms which turned into my most pronounced Clark Griswold  moment of the trip.  After heading west instead of east at a rest stop in New Hampshire, I bolted back to the Dunkin’ Donuts to let my mom run in and scold them for the baconless croissant sandwich she left with 10 minutes earlier. Better her than me because I would have made a pock hock out of a sausage. As a result of our grueling trek, I had to forgo a couple of planned DDD in order to hit Bangor before dark.  The one I did make was the Maine Diner in Wells.  Like everything else on the east coast in July it was jammed packed so I squeezed into a small parking space, dodged some old people and begged for some takeout. To keep it easy, I stuck with two of Maine’s mainstays; clam chowder and a whoopie pie.   The chowder was less than I expected.  The pie was bigger than a softball and weighed over pounds and looked like a Jos Louis on steroids. Although my pictures are notoriously bad, this one is worse and i didn’t take it.

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Maine Diner Whoopie Pie

When I finally got to Bangor it was about 4 hours later than I expected but not too late to hit up Brewster’s Fine Food and Drink adjacent to the Brewer Motor Inn to fulfill a promise to find the cheapest wings in town. It will never make a Zagat list but for good food, cheap beer and great service  I couldn’t complain.  The people watching was almost as good as the whales…if I would have seen of them in Maine.  The culinary gems of this place included “name that dip” and “balls on a plate (see below)”..both for under 7 bucks.  Combine that with the turkey bomber sandwich (complete with gravy and swiss cheese) and you have a meal for a (Stephen) King.

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Balls on a Plate

So after a day of slow Subarus, blissful burgers, beyond reach beer, whopping whoopies and balls on a plate I was ready for a good night’s sleep in the master of horror’s home town but unsurprisingly it ended in nothing but Insomnia.