I crave good barbecue. I mean, really good, slap-your-momma good barbecue. Until Old Carolina BBQ opened up in Akron / Canton / Massillon over the last couple years, this part of Ohio was simply devoid of anything I considered to be even mediocre. And while Old Carolina has sustained my somewhat insatiable lust for these tasty smoked and tangy flavors over the last few years, I am here to tell you of a revelatory new barbecue restaurant that is going to kick some serious butt.
I first met Walter Hyde at a blogger dinner that had been put together by Chef Ellis Cooley at AMP 150. At the time he was the executive chef at the Crazy Horse gentleman's club and while I had never considered the cuisine at, to be slightly vulgar, a strip club, indeed his clientèle were as serious about the grass-fed locally sourced steaks as they were about the visual titillation going on in front of them. That was where he met his current business partner, Scott Slagle, a retired WWE wrestler who decided to go into the food business after his nine year stint ended as Kodiak.
They decided to cash in on an up and coming food trend: fast casual dining. They wanted a restaurant concept where you place your order and the food is served up almost immediately. But it also needed to be family friendly and serve a niche market. As they were often spending their off hours doing low and slow barbecue for themselves as well as catering for others, it seemed almost natural and inevitable that they would eventually need to find their own kitchen in which to cook. From that original idea, over time they decided to add a take-out counter as well. However, when they stumbled across their current space, the old Mezza Luna restaurant space in Macedonia, they not only got what they were looking for, but much more.
Fat Casual BBQ was located at 223 East Highland Road, Macedonia, OH 44056 and can be reached at 330-748-4690. They are currently working on a website at the time of this writing. Parking was in a lot surrounding the building on both the east and west sides of the building as well as additional parking in back. Finding the restaurant was dirt simple. If you remember where the on-ramp to I-271 used to be off of Rt. 8, it is only a skip and a jump down Highland Road until you see this sign:
This was the surest way to locate the right building as they are still working on refinishing the storefront:
While the exterior may need some finishing touches, once inside, Walter, Scott and crew have managed in only one month to take this unused restaurant and give it a sense of simplicity and warmth that is actually open for business. It should be noted that today's gathering was at the request of Walter and was designed as a "preview" of Fat Casual's menu. As such, everyones' meals were free. If that bothers you, gentle reader, please take what I say in this review with whatever grain of salt you desire.
When you first walk into the building you can't help but notice two things: the smell of hickory wood smoke permeating the air and the enormous white board hanging on the wall above you, detailing out the delicious options from which you can choose:
Something that I didn't notice right away because it was sitting against the same wall as the door to the outside was the dessert menu:
Everything with the exception of the flat bread and the pretzel rolls was made from scratch: the sauces, the sides, the meats ... ALL of it. Since I arrived at the restaurant before several of my friends did, I sat down at one of the many open tables (the place could probably seat fifty people easily) and checked out the bottle of sauce placed at the center of each:
This was the "House" BBQ sauce and as Walter explained to us later, it was designed to be sort of a fundamental sauce, not striving to go too far in any direction. He said that it would stand up on its own, but not overpower the flavor of the smoke or the meat and it also worked well in conjunction with the four other homemade BBQ sauces available:
From left to right, there were Texas Heat, Memphis style, Honey, and Carolina style sauces available. Fortunately, plastic tasting spoons were provided in a cup just behind the bottles. My friends and I eagerly got down to some serious tasting. Representing various barbecue cultures throughout the United States, Fat Casual has managed to capture those regional flavors incredibly well in each bottle. While I appreciated all of the different sauces, my personal favorite that made my taste buds stand up and shout "Wow!" was the Memphis style.
Wanting to taste just a little bit of everything, Walter was more than happy to put together a sampler platter that let us try each smoked meat, homemade sides, and even their desserts. All of the smoked meats are made using hickory wood. At some point they might play around with some of the fruit woods (Apple wood, etc.), but for now, they are quite happy with the simple, but quite effective flavor that Hickory imparts.
First up were the pork ribs and smoked sausage, in this case Bratwurst:
If you look closely at the Bratwurst, you can see the telltale sign of a good piece of smoked meat: the pink smoke ring. Our table literally gobbled these up. The nice thing about all of Fat Casual's smoked meats was that while there was a definite presence of smoke flavor, the flavor of the meat came through just as nicely. In fact, that was probably the overriding takeaway I had today about the food at Fat Casual; not only was it VERY tasty, but the flavors were always very well balanced.
The ribs were interesting in that besides tasting delicious, the meat needed a little bit of a tug with your teeth before it separated from the bone. This wasn't a bad thing and in fact, many a barbecue fanatic will argue over whether there should be a little tug or whether the meat should simply fall away like it did with the ribs at Edgar's Restaurant in Akron. I don't know that I'm qualified to answer that age old question definitively, but I can tell you that both versions worked very well in my book.
Next up we had a trio of smoked thinly-sliced meats:
From left to right were turkey breast, beef brisket, and pork tenderloin. Walter told us that they decided to do pork tenderloin over something more traditional, like pork shoulder, saving the pulled pork for parties and catering. After trying all three meats, I was not in a position to argue. Sometimes it is easy to forget what truly good smoked turkey breast is supposed to taste like because the only exposure we have as northeast Ohioans is what is available in the local mega grocery store. The delicate flavors of hickory smoke matched so well with the flavor of the turkey that when I come back for a sandwich (and you can better believe that I will), this might just be my only choice.
That's not to say that the pork and brisket weren't also tender and tasty, too. And because there were so many sauces from which to choose, you could pair each protein with its own sauce to make your very own flavor explosion.
True barbecue wouldn't be complete without the sides and the Fat Casual team didn't disappoint in this department either:
In the back was the baked beans, to the left was the pinto beans over rice, to the right was the macaroni and cheese, and at the bottom was the most amazing of all the sides, a warm sweet potato salad. Of the four, the only one that wasn't as stellar as it could have been was the macaroni and cheese. While the noodles were cooked properly, the cheese sauce was actually a tad underseasoned and just a bit ... for lack of a better word, ordinary. The baked beans, while quite tasty, didn't quite live up to the baked beans served at Old Carolina BBQ. The rice and beans were nicely seasoned, but like I already mentioned, the STAR on that tray was the warm sweet potato salad.
Inspired from the more traditional German potato salad, cooked sweet potatoes had been combined with caramelized onions, bacon, and a nice tangy vinaigrette to make a dynamite side dish. I can totally see Fat Casual BBQ becoming famous for just this side dish alone. A lot of the dinners come with two sides; I can already see myself ordering this one again and again.
Since not all of the sides fit into that one paper boat, Walter loaded us up with the rest of the sides and a couple of the desserts on another plate:
To the left were two of the pretzel rolls available for sandwiches, and starting at the top and working clockwise were the homemade coleslaw, the Piggy Pudding, the Banana Pudding, and a piece of the freshly baked cornbread. While the pretzel rolls were one of the few items not made in-house, they were fresh and quite delicious. Unless the other available vehicle for sandwiches, flatbread, was out-of-this-world good, the pretzel roll would definitely be my choice for a sandwich.
The coleslaw was creamy and tangy. My friend thought it was overdressed, but I appreciated the extra creaminess of the dressing and how it matched well to the crunchiness of the vegetables. The cornbread was delicious without being overly sweet (as us Northerner's tend to like it) and while I prefer my cornbread in fried hushpuppy form, this was an excellent substitute.
While I've said before that I'm not a huge dessert person, it pays to leave a little room at the end of your meal for one of Fat Casual's sweet treats. The first item we tried was the Piggy Pudding. Similar in flavor and texture to a typical cheesecake, this was a nice, if not stellar way to end your meal. That being said, the next taste we tried, the banana pudding, blew our collective socks off. Rich and banana-y, this dessert was proof positive that you don't need a lot of complex flavors to make a good dessert.
The final two desserts we tried today were the Red Velvet Cake Bites and the Pumpkin Spiced Whoopie Pies:
Enveloped in a coating of chocolate and suggestively evoking a truffle wannabe, these were individual bites of red velvet cake. Too often dried out and difficult to swallow without a glug of water, this cake was incredibly moist, decadently flavored with chocolate, and well ... quite red on the inside. Our first bite was so good we actually went back up for a second. The pumpkin spiced whoopie pie was also very good and between the moistness of the cake and the creaminess of the vanilla filling, we scarfed them up in no time flat.
We left some two hours after arriving, stuffed completely with barbecue goodness and barely able to saunter out to our vehicles. I have mixed emotions about telling the Internet about Fat Casual BBQ. While of course I want the business to succeed (and wildly so), I don't want to have to compete for a table once they become immensely popular. That being said, I'll keep my selfishness under check for now and implore you, gentle reader, that you NEED to get to Fat Casual BBQ as soon as is humanly possible for quite literally some of the best barbecue this foodie has ever had, much less written about.
The restaurant officially opens for business on Monday, October 11th and will be open six days a week, Monday through Saturday, from 11 AM until 8 PM. Those hours could change once next spring rolls around, but I was assured that those would at least be the initial hours.