Homeplate host Stephanie Shaw presents a ‘Certificate of Good Taste’ to Eli’s Famous Bar-B-Que. The popular Trumbull County restaurant is owned by Thelma Holman, center. A video profile appears below.
By SEAN POSEY | METRO MONTHLY CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Talking local barbecue is a sure-fire way to stimulate taste buds and memories in equal measure. Long known for diverse ethnic cuisine, the Youngstown-Warren area also holds a special place in the hearts of discriminating barbecue lovers young and old. Though the scene has changed over the years, quality ribs, perfectly smoked meats and delectable sauces are still found in a variety of Valley establishments.
The list of classic local barbecue spots is filled with storied names: Garland’s, Foy’s, which had locations on Wilson, Hillman and Market; Jackson’s Grove, which served the Sharon Line-McGuffey Heights area; Young’s in Lincoln Knoll’s Plaza, Eli’s in Warren, and the widely-known Charlie Staple’s.
Al Robinson has lived all over Youngstown, and he’s been eating barbecue for over 50 years: “The best barbecue was always Garland’s; the meat just melted off of the bone.”
“Next would be Foy’s, especially the Foy’s on Wilson Avenue, and then C. Staples; you always know what you’re going to get.”
Charles Currey no longer lives in the area, but he spent decades on the East Side of Youngstown. He retains an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the city, that includes barbecue.
“High C’s on High Street had some amazingly rich barbecue sauce.” But the spot was the Pit on Fifth Avenue.”
“After going out dancing at the Carousel or some place like that on the North Side, you’d go there and get some ribs with the homemade biscuits with the sauce spread over them. Oh, man! They were the best things you ever tasted!”
The aroma of barbecue permeated much of Joyce Jones’ early life. A lifelong resident of the South Side, her mother and father operated Dial’s Barbecue and Frozen Custard, located at the corner of Hillman and Woodland during the 1960s and 1970s.
“We were open seven days a week and late on Sundays,” said Jones. “The kids leaving Reed’s Arena after skating would come in and eat ribs and play the juke box—four records for a quarter. Dial’s had ribs, rib sandwiches and homemade collard greens that were slow-cooked every day.”
A place like Dial’s represented the kind of neighborhood barbecue restaurant that you could find both in Youngstown and Warren at the time. Even though the physical layouts have changed, quality barbecue is alive and well in both cities today.
An unimposing storefront on Belmont Avenue’s commercial corridor is home to one of the more recent faces on the local barbecue scene. In business for almost a decade, the Chicken and Rib Cage is prospering under the ownership of Joseph A. Eaton. A former employee at GM Lordstown, Eaton has brought to Youngstown a mastery of barbecue that he picked up during his years in Detroit.
Asked what the secret is, Eaton will quickly tell you what makes his product stand out: “We don’t pre-boil, we don’t bake it to death in the oven . … Our sauce is really the final touch, but you can even eat it without the sauce because it’s smoked properly.”
The Chicken and Rib Cage is located at 1504 Belmont Ave., and they are open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 11p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Not all of the best barbecue can be found at a permanent location. After spreading through major cities across the country, the food truck craze recently arrived in the Mahoning Valley. Now you can find barbecue on wheels.
Blanche Silva started out operating a hot dog stand in downtown Youngstown. After running into vending issues, she bought a used food truck and changed her offerings to soul food and barbecue. “It took me a year to fix it up,” said Silva, who originally offered her barbecue in the kitchen at First Calvary Baptist Church.
Now you can find her truck, Willie’s Soul Food on Wheels, at the Glenwood Farmers’ Market, during season, and every Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Oak Hill Collaborative at 507 Oak Hill Ave. Willie’s offers barbecue ribs and chicken along with numerous traditional soul food sides.
Few local establishments have been around as long as Eli’s Famous Bar-B-Que located at 1407 Niles Road in Warren. The genesis of Eli’s dates back to the days when owner Thelma Holman’s husband, a pastor, began making ribs to support his church during a difficult transition. However, when times improved the local community still wanted what were quickly becoming famous ribs. Eli’s officially opened to the public in 1975. Thelma Holman has been running the store since her husband passed away in 1989.
Holman attributes Eli’s success to “a God-given secret” in the sauce. “We also know through years of experience just how to properly grill it, “ she explained.
Aside from ribs, fish and wingdings, Eli’s also offers southern-style sweet potato pie and coconut cake, both made from scratch. They are open Wednesday (10 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Over the decades, southern migrants and entrepreneurs helped establish a rich tradition of barbecue that’s made the Valley a center for rib lovers throughout Northeast Ohio. That historical trend continues today as a new generation comes to appreciate the savory sauces and mouth-watering slabs that represent the best in local barbecue.
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