Best of Cleveland 2012: Food

Downtown Lunch Secret

Loading up on food whenever possible is one of those benefits of college students that seems to fade as time progresses. Grubbing down with a handful of plates for a weekday lunch gets replaced with the adulthood standard of "salad and a water" or a cup of yogurt at your desk. But Cleveland State University is letting us relive those glory days for an afternoon. Head to Viking Marketplace at the downtown campus' student center for an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($8.50), boasting a stockpiled menu updated daily. Featuring everything from soup and salad bars to black olive and artichoke pizza, buffalo chicken wraps, a self-service deli station and Asian-infused sesame vegetable stir fry, the only thing you'll be questioning is what not to get. There are even breakfast and dessert options — not to mention plenty of vegan and vegetarian choices — for you to enjoy among the CSU students studying for midterms or skipping their Philosophy 101 class. They don't know how good they have it. 2121 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 216-687-5001,

Cupcake Milkshake

It's almost sacrilegious to watch Colossal Cupcakes owner Kelly Kandah destroy one of her edible works of art to make the store's cupcake milkshakes ($5), but the payoff is worth it. "You literally pick it out from the case and we throw it in the blender," she says. "It did hurt in the beginning to see beautifully decorated cupcakes thrown in there, but that's the fun of it." Choose from more than 40 flavors such as Zealot Red Velvet or Cookie Monster, and then watch as Kandah adds whole milk and gourmet vanilla ice cream to the blender and gives it a whirl. The finished drink is topped with whipped cream and a mini cupcake on the straw for a creamy treat that is the best of both worlds. The shakes are so popular she had to purchase a freezer just to store the ice cream. "Originally I was going to do milkshakes, and then I thought, Why not just combine them both and make a cupcake milkshake?" she says. We'll drink to that. 530 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 216-938-9609,

Breakfast for Lunch

As if owning five restaurants weren't impressive enough, chef Zack Bruell is extending the most important meal of the day beyond the frantic rush of your morning routine. In a fine-dining culture where attention is so heavily focused on entrees and desserts, Bruell has pioneered a sophisticated midday choice with his breakfast-style interpretation of Lox & Eggs ($9), available at Cowell & Hubbard during lunchtime. He alters the dish's typical ingredients with a touch of his own flair, adding truffle oil to the eggs, swapping cream cheese out for burrata (a creamy, tangy mozzarella) and crisping up a few thinly sliced bagel halves. It all meshes beautifully with the raw, cured salmon fillet, called gravlax. "It's sort of my take on what a deli dish is," says Bruell. "I like to take stuff that is sort of standard and twist it around into something different." 1305 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 216-479-0555,

Weekly Pizza Menu

We get pretty fickle about our pizza toppings, so Vero Bistro's weekly menu keeps us checking in every seven days to see what's on the pie. The new spot, where La Gelataria used to be (they kept the gelato) in Cleveland Heights, has about 12 wood-fired pizzas on its regular menu, including delicious standbys such as salume (their pepperoni) and margherita. But every week you come upon something new like the pancetta, egg and mozzarella masterpiece that we found, with its gooey cheese and perfectly cooked egg. The weekly menu is based on whatever local, in-season ingredients chef and owner Marc-Aurele Buholzer can find. We aren't the only ones infatuated. Jonathon Sawyer tweeted that he thought Vero had a great dough recipe. "The dough is our big thing here," Buholzer says. "It's soft, yet has a layer of crispness around the outside — very airy but very thin." 12421 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-229-8383,

Gas Station Burrito

We rarely encourage our readers to spend their dining experiences at local gas stations, but Yorktown Service Plaza is a clear exception. The nearly 40-year-old Parma Heights fueling establishment has been pumping out more than gasoline since adding a kitchen in 2004. "We were looking to diversify a few years back," says vice president Matt Shull. "We brought a little bit of home cooking into it instead of just the fast-food concept that you get at most places." Make a point to swing by in the morning and order the massive and freshly cooked breakfast burrito for only $2.99. The full-sized tortilla is stuffed with eggs, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, salsa, sour cream, and your choice of cheese and meat, all made up right in front of you. "We try to offer food at a fair price," says Shull. "Once somebody comes in, tastes the food and sees what they can get for their money, it's a win." No argument here. 6177 Pearl Road, Parma Heights, 440-885-222,

Lobster Corn Dog

Adding lobster to any dish is an instant winner in our book. So we were pleasantly surprised when chef Chris Hodgson included the Big Dipper ($12) — a trio of lobster corn dogs — on the menu of his new restaurant, Hodge's. The fair staple gets a luxurious upgrade with 5 ounces of creamy lobster mousse, made of sautéed shallots, garlic, lobster cream, tarragon and chopped up lobster, all on the inside of a cornmeal batter. "I like corn dogs, but lobster was just something slightly more intriguing than your normal beef corn dog," Hodgson says. "It's a childhood favorite grown-up." The appetizer is served with a trio of rotating sauces such as a smoked apple and red pepper jam or Hodgson's own twist on tartar sauce, giving us plenty of reasons to keep dunking away. 668 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 216-771-4000,

P.M. Doughnut

Those of you who aren't early birds but still want to indulge in one of your favorite breakfast staples should head over to the '60s- and '70s-themed Peace Love & Little Donuts in West Park. The shop's cake doughnuts are baked fresh until 4 p.m. on weekdays and range from classic flavors such as powdered sugar to the more creative maple bacon, Boston cream pie or chocolate-covered pretzel. "We feel like doughnuts kind of got lost for a few years," says owner James Crawford. "After the cupcake craze, it's nice to go back to the old-school doughnut but dress it up for today's clientele." Another way Crawford is keeping up with the times is by using Facebook to ask customers for new flavor suggestions, which helps him mix up the menu. "It's always nice to have a few secrets up your sleeves for those customers who come in often," he says. 3786 Rocky River Drive, Cleveland, 216-862-9806

Pizza Fries

Fries usually play second fiddle to hamburgers, but at SweetieFry in Cleveland Heights, the potato gets top billing. Keith Logan opened his ice-cream-and-fries-only shop last October and shortly after debuted his pizza fries ($6.95 for a single serving; $10.50 for a double serving). The shoestring spuds go through a secret eight-step process before getting tossed in basil and oregano. The hearty entrée is then topped with plenty of mozzarella and aged provolone for an ooey-gooey treat that only gets better when dipped in Sainato's Restaurant pizza sauce. The dish has quickly become the most popular of the other seven varieties that include bacon cheddar, and Parmesan and truffle oil. "It's a familiar flavor in a new form," says Logan. "It tastes like pizza all the way through, yet you're looking at a basket of fries." 2307 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-2300,

Restaurant Garden

Saying Ben Bebenroth has a green thumb would be an understatement. The chef and owner of Spice Kitchen & Bar in Gordon Square recently added an outdoor garden to the restaurant, complete with a hoop house and 1,000 square feet of raised beds, in addition to his own 10,000-square-foot garden at his Broadview Heights home. The produce, ranging from basil, thyme, rosemary, arugula, lettuce and eggplants, are used throughout dishes at the restaurant, as well as Spice of Life Catering Co. and Plated Landscapes. "It really just gets mixed in wherever it can," says Bebenroth. For example, a black beauty eggplant is cut in half, roasted and pureed to top Spice's eggplant flatbread. If the garden produces excess of any one item, Bebenroth cans it for later. This season's tomatoes will be preserved and used down the road for tomato pastes and sauces. "We'll jar it while it's fresh and save it for a time we need it," he says. "At least we have that in our arsenal when we go into winter." 5800 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, 216-961-9637,

Green Spaghetti

"Green spaghetti sounded cool," says the always-cool, part-time rock 'n' roller, full-time chef Dante Boccuzzi of the creation that landed on the menu at his new Akron restaurant, DBA. What he concocted is better than cool, though. It's dastardly, sinfully delicious pasta masquerading as health food — it is chock full of spinach, after all. Boccuzzi's staff purees spinach with oil, then adds in flour, eggs and salt to make the pasta from scratch, mixing it with sautéed spinach, rock shrimp, lots of butter and garlic, and a generous handful of breadcrumbs. Silky, warm, salty and smooth, it's a delightfully eccentric twist on comfort food that's become a huge hit with diners. "It's definitely going to be a signature dish that won't come off the menu," says Boccuzzi, who notes that he hears compliments on the Akron-only dish at his Cleveland restaurants. "People wake up craving it in the middle of the night; they know where to go," he jokes. 21 Furnace St., Akron, 330-375-5050,

Wine-infused Cheesecake

Lucky for us, Nosh Eatery & Creative Catering head chef and co-owner Rick Carson was determined not to let a drop of leftover pinot noir go to waste. Now with his pinot noir cheesecakes ($7.75), we no longer have to decide between another glass of wine or dessert. Each individual dessert is made with a swirl of syrupy wine reduction sauce and Carson's cherished cheesecake recipe. "We have some Madagascar vanilla [in the cheesecake] and a little bit of lemon zest, which goes really well with the red wine," he says. Each cheesecake rests on a lavender cookie crust, a perfect crunchy companion to the creamy cake. "I like a good balance of salt and sugar, so I always put a little bit of sea salt in the crust," adds Carson. And it's a good thing these cheesecakes are individual. After one toothsome bite, you definitely won't want to share. 5929 Darrow Road, Hudson, 330-650-6674,

Chocolate-Covered Matzo

A tasty twist on the traditional dry cracker, Fantasy Candies' chocolate-covered matzo might even get the approval of your rabbi. Just one bite of the salty, sweet sensation and you'll be praying for more. Fantasy Candies founder Joel Fink reveals his secret: the salted matzo. It's bathed in milk chocolate, semisweet or his signature (heart-healthy) SweetDreams 72 deep dark — made of 72 percent cocoa solids. Though it's not kosher, the concoction creates a rich crunch with slight caramel overtones, making it the perfect dessert for the Passover Seder or any other occasion. "I grew up eating [matzo] at Passover time and we always were trying to come up with ways to make it taste better; it was almost a no-brainer," says Fink, who specializes in other unusual combos, such as chocolate-drenched cheese doodles and Fritos. Mazel tov. 5338 Mayfield Road, Lyndhurst, 440-461-4511,

Dessert Burger

It would appear that BRGR 9 executive chef Robert Dippong has solved one of the most elusive culinary conundrums of our existence: combining one's burger craving and sweet tooth into a single edible creation. The result is the Sweet BRGR ($6.99), a thick brownie patty topped with vanilla bean ice cream and strawberry mousse, all served up between a warm chocolate chip cookie bun. "I was looking for something that would be fun and had the theme of our gourmet burger restaurant," says Dippong. "I tried to put together a bunch of flavors that most people would enjoy with the elements of a regular burger and make it into a dessert." The massive concoction also includes a side of funnel cake fries with a raspberry compote dipping sauce, bringing the burger-and-fries concept to fruition. "I usually recommend a couple people sharing it," says Dippong. "The kids are the ones that are always the most excited about it." 1382 W. Ninth St., Cleveland, 216-535-0001,

His-and-Hers Restaurant

Amherst's two-in-one hotspot proves the rules we learn in school really can apply later in life. In this case, it's girls on one side, boys on the other. There are two restaurant concepts under one roof here, with just a hallway and kitchen separating them. Sophisticated Cork's Wine Bar & Bistro features an extensive wine menu with dozens of options, including a captain's list of splurge-worthy vintages. Casual Stubby's Pub & Grub attracts laidback party seekers with a taste for beer. With 20 brews on tap and 125 in bottles, he can chug a can from the Your Dad's Beer list or keep it classy with a Unibroue La Fin du Monde Belgian style. Diners can order food from either menu for a mix-and-match experience, so she can still pair her vino with a doughnut burger from Stubby's, while he can order the pinot-braised pork belly from Cork's. 209 S. Main St., Amherst, 440-984-7430 (Cork's Wine Bar & Bistro) and 440-984-7432 (Stubby's Pub & Grub),

Buckeye Apple

It doesn't need to be football season for fans to show their support for Ohio State. An edible tribute to our favorite college team is available any day of the year from Campbell's Sweets Factory with its Buckeye Apple ($5.95). Owners Jeff and Lynn Campbell tackled this creation in 2009 after a suggestion from Jeff's father, Amos. "We make Buckeye candies," says Lynn. "So he said we should try it with an apple." In-season apples (right now it's Melrose, a crisp semisweet variety) are dipped completely in caramel, followed by a bath of peanut-butter-flavored chocolate, and then topped off with milk chocolate two-thirds of the way to resemble the popular candy. "Peanut butter and chocolate naturally go together. And then to put that chocolate on top of caramel is just delicious," says Lynn. "The apple just gives it a tartness that brings out all the flavors." 2084 W. 25th St., Cleveland, 216-965-0451,

Pierogi Pizza

To answer your first question, no, this is not a simple case of pierogis scattered across a pizza. Although P. Jay's Pizza owner Chris Mastroianni may sometimes wish it was that easy. During Lent, when the shop typically churns out 50 pierogi pizzas ($12.99 for a large) on a Friday night, it can get a little dicey. "It's like 7 o'clock on a Friday," he says, "and I'm yelling, 'Get water on — we got to do more potatoes!' " He boils and mashes the potatoes, then adds in the cheddar cheese. A layer of the mixture goes onto a crust and is topped with sautéed onions, butter and more cheddar cheese. And to answer your other question, yes, there is sour cream. Every pizza comes with two packets. 5859 Ridge Road, Parma, 440-885-4355,

Pigs in a Blanket

If you thought this dish was merely a party staple, you'd better think again. SoHo Kitchen & Bar chef and owner Nolan Konkoski was looking to add an appetizer to his menu this summer when an employee suggested pigs in a blanket — a hot dog wrapped in a crescent roll. "From there we just started to figure out how to make this definitively Southern and definitively our own kind of dish," he says. Konkoski switched out the hot dog for andouille sausage, which offers a smoky and spicy taste, and dressed it up with pickled mustard seeds and a bed of bourbon baked beans. "It kind of became a play between pigs in a blanket, pork and beans and comfort food," says Konkoski. "It immediately brings people back to their childhood." 1889 W. 25th St., Cleveland, 216-298-9090,

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