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Over a five day road trip to the Midwest, my friend Forrest and I hit four different baseball stadiums, generally eating standard ballpark fare and breakfast at our hotels. We had one very good meal at a restaurant the first night of the trip, in Columbus (OH), but it was dinner on the final night that was really something special.
I watched a lot of Food Network for a couple years, as it was just about the only channel with anything good on during the wee hours of the nights while I was at work with nothing to do, and every time Michael Symon was on, I would drool over the thought of going to one of his restaurants. The man just seemed to appreciate pork in a way that no one else does, and that is my kind of chef. So, when we arrived in Cleveland and were looking for somewhere to eat dinner, I checked out his restaurants. Lolita, the more casual of his two primary restaurants (the other being Lola), is located in Tremont, at the corner of Literary Rd and Professor Ave. Every day, Lolita has a happy hour menu (served only at the bar) for a couple hours, which has a white wine, red wine, two mixed drinks, a beer, and four small dishes available, with the food just $5 per plate and the drinks that or less. This was perfect to try a few different things on the menu, so we sat at the bar, ordered a couple beers ($2 each!), and a few items off the menu. Sadly I did not think to write down what the beer was, since it was actually pretty good, but I do remember the food!
Forrest had to step out to take a call right when we arrived, so I ordered us the Mac & Cheese (a half portion of their regular serving) and the Mussels off the happy hour menu, and the Crispy Pig Tails & Ears appetizer from the regular menu. The Mussels arrived first, a large portion for just $5, perfectly cooked (aka not chewy), with a creamy sauce including house-made chorizo, garlic and parsley, along with a couple pieces of bread to soak up the sauce, which the bartender replenished at my request so as not to waste the remnants of the sauce after we were finished with the shellfish itself. The chorizo was delicious, salty and savory, and the sauce was perfectly creamy, with a slight tang. Not quite as good all in all as the mussels at Local 188 in Portland (ME), but probably top three I've ever had.
The Crispy Pig Tails & Ears arrived at about the same time as the Mac & Cheese, so I tried the pasta first. This was the only real disappointment of the evening, as the macaroni (rotini, in this case) was slightly overcooked, the chicken was boring and plain, and the cheese sauce was nothing I could not make myself. In fact, my own version of the dish is better. I am glad I did not order the full portion of this, because I think I would have had a very disappointing meal if this were my entree. It was not even that it was bad; it simply was nothing you could not get at any decent diner or at most peoples' homes.
The Crispy Pig Tails & Ears made up for that disappointment and more. I have been describing the pig tails to my friends as a perfect combination of bacon and chicken wings; they were crisp, succulent, and fatty. The sauce they were tossed in was a fennel-onion agrodolce, which resulted in a very slightly sweet and very vinegary flavor, which actually would be great on wings as well. There was a salad of fried slices of pigs ear, pickled chili peppers, and the onions and fennel from the agrodolce, which was just absolutely amazing; the fried pigs ear pieces were so incredibly good they were only topped by the tails themselves, and the crunch from them was a great counterpoint to the soft vegetables and even the tender meat of the tails. The whole thing was prepared so well I honestly can not find a single flaw, and I can usually nitpick something in every dish. This is probably the single best dish I have ever eaten, and I would drive back to Cleveland just to have it.
We were still hungry after those three, so we ordered the Fried Brussels Sprouts (Forrest does not like eggplant, so the Charred Eggplant Dip was not an option), and they were also incredibly good, even surpassing my previous favorite preparation of these formerly hated greens at Portland's Pai Men Miyake. Deep frying makes everything better, and that holds true for these, with the crispy outer leaves and slightly crunchy center giving it a nice contrast to the softer inner leaves. Served with walnuts, capers and anchovies, there was a vinegar-like tang (likely from the capers) to these as well, just like the pig, and the walnuts added a nice meatiness to the dish. The anchovies were a bit lost, though there was a healthy saltiness that could have been from them. For people who think they do not like Brussels sprouts, they should really try these; I think they would change their minds.
Food is obviously the main thing you go to a restaurant for, but I firmly believe that people go back for service; after all, you can get good food just about anywhere, but really superlative service is honestly kind of rare. While I was a little leery of the bartender at first, as he did not immediately provide the attentiveness that I am used to at higher end restaurants, he eventually turned it around, joking with us, talking about basketball (we were in Cleveland, after all; LeBron was bound to come up, right?) and baseball, and just generally chatting with us in a way that was pleasant and unobtrusive. Top notch service in the end, and a really nice guy in general.
All in all, this was one of the best meals I have had, with just the one dish that was not spectacular, and two that were legitimately incredible in the Crispy Pigs Ears & Tails and the Brussels Sprouts, while the mussels were really delicious as well. I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough. It is also most assuredly not vegetarian friendly, but if you are looking to break out of that lifestyle, this is the place (and the pigs ears are the dish) to do it. Additionally, though it is not cheap for a real dinner, if you just go for the happy hour, you can get out of there pretty cheap; our meal was under $30 before tax and tip, for four dishes and four beers, a pretty tremendous value.
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