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everything you always wanted to know about asiatown (but were afraid to ask)
















According to the latest census figures, roughly 30,000 Asian-Americans call Cuyahoga County home, a number that continues to rise. Many of these folks live, work, shop and eat in Cleveland's AsiaTown neighborhood, which is loosely bordered by E. 30th and 40th streets and St. Clair and Payne avenues. Located in this dense district are numerous Asian-owned restaurants, markets and bakeries. Here are some of the stand-outs.

Restaurants

If you want to enjoy Cleveland's finest bowl of pho, the city's crispiest roast duck, and the only authentic Korean barbecue, there is only one neighborhood to visit. Tucked within this single district are restaurants devoted to Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai and Korean cuisine. More continue to open.

Superior Pho

There are no two ways about it: Cleveland's best bowl of pho is served at Superior Pho, an out-of-the-way joint tucked into an odd little mall. For the uninitiated, pho is Vietnamese beef noodle soup. For the initiated, it is heaven in a hat-size bowl. The standard model includes deeply aromatic beef broth, slender rice noodles, and the meat of your choosing. It will be the best $7 you will spend this month. In addition to pho, this well-run eatery excels at bahn mi sandwiches, crispy baguettes filled with roast pork, pickled veggies, fresh herbs, and slathers of mayo and housemade pate.

Seoul Hot Pot (3709 Payne Ave., 216-881-1221)

"What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?" asked Bill Murray's character in Lost in Translation. A Korean barbecue, for one. If there is a more amusing dining experience in town, we haven't found it. Diners who reserve a grill table at Seoul Hot Pot, a modest restaurant in a house, will have the pleasure of grilling dinner while knocking back belts of soju, Korean rice wine. The main event is kalbi, lengths of garlicky short rib that is grilled, dipped in sauce, tucked into a cool lettuce leaf, and devoured like a Korean taco. To round out the meal, tack on orders of mandu (crunchy fried dumplings), kimbob (Korean-style sushi with meat), and pa jun (scallion pancakes).

Wonton Gourmet BBQ (3211 Payne Ave., 216-875-7000)

Ever get the feeling that others are eating better than you? That is often the case at Chinese restaurants, where native-tongued diners order off super-secret menus reserved for those who read Mandarin. The kind (and sage) owners of Wonton Gourmet, however, conceal nothing. Every delicious dish is exhibited in vivid pictures on the walls, so rare is the case of mistaken mu-shu identity. Here, a perfect meal includes plump chive and pork-filled potstickers, pan-fried turnip cakes, beef chow fun, golden roast duck, and a platter of freshly sautéed greens. At lunch, head straight for the shrimp dumpling noodle soup, a winter warmer if ever there was one.

Li Wah

Dim sum is an inalienable right conferred only upon residents of towns fortunate enough to have a place like Li Wah. Too many of us take for granted the fact that we can laze away a Sunday gorging on little Asian delicacies. Grab a seat in the massive, bustling dining room, sip tea, and wait for the steam carts to circle you like vultures on a dry day. Point and pick your way through shrimp dumplings, steamed pork buns, sticky rice in lotus leaves, turnip cakes, shrimp stuffed mushrooms, beef tripe, and yes, stir-fried chicken feet, which are nearly as fun to eat as wings.

Groceries

New food markets continue to open, providing adventurous home chefs with everything required to whip up those complicated Asian recipes. Even for the most timid of home cooks, Asian groceries are the best places to shop for staples like soy sauce, Sriracha, dried noodles, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots.

Tink Holl (1735 East 36th St., 216-881-6996)

This granddaddy of Asian groceries used to anchor the Asia Plaza before relocating to a larger, more modern location. Like most in the neighborhood, the store carries a dizzying selection of imported products, frozen foods, and live seafood. This market has a small but choice produce section, stocking big bundles of fresh greens like baby bok choy and Chinese mustard greens. Unsweetened soy milk is ground fresh on site and the copper-colored roast ducks that hang behind glass may be the finest around. Purchased by the half or whole, the ducks are hacked into pieces by a cleaver-wielding cook and packed to go with pickled veggies and sauce.

Park to Shop (1580 E. 30th St., 216-916-0177)

One of AsiaTown's newer grocery stores, Park to Shop offers more than ample parking. Wide, well-lit aisles make shopping here a breeze, unlike at some of the other markets where elbow room is in short supply. Visitors will find a vast selection of hard-to-find Asian produce, including green daikon, bitter melon, fresh water chestnuts and stinky durian fruit. Live seafood, including crabs, eels, lobster and frogs, are displayed next to saltwater duck, barbecue pork, and a full meat department. A small "café" upfront sells bubble tea, fruit smoothies and Asian sweets.

Good Harvest Food Market (3038 Payne Ave., 216-861-8018)

For a wholly immersive experience, it's tough to top a trip to Good Harvest, a small, cramped and chaotic grocery. The tall shelves and narrow aisles might prove claustrophobic for some, but the sheer volume of bottled, canned, jarred and boxed product is impressive. Purchase any number of prepared curries, soy sauces, fish sauces, hot sauces and canned veggies at rock-bottom prices. Live, fresh lobster is sold for a fraction of what it goes for elsewhere. Also, if you're in the market for a new wok, cleaver, sake urn or bundle of 500 chopsticks, Good Harvest has you covered.

Bakeries

All times of the day, AsiaTown snackers reach for steamed buns, which are filled with sweet or savory goodness and displayed in self-serve racks. Come dessert time, elaborate and brightly hued Asian cakes, pastries and desserts beckon with crowns of fresh fruit and cream.

Koko Bakery (3710 Payne Ave., 216-881-7600)

Pretty as a picture, this contemporary Asian bakery sports coolers filled with vibrantly hued fruit tarts, cakes and pastries. On-the-go eaters have at their disposal a large self-serve display of freshly steamed and baked buns. Round, springy and glossy, the buns are filled with ingredients such as barbecued pork, curried beef, even hotdogs. A yummy ham-and-egg bun, the Asian version of the breakfast sandwich, costs about $1.50 -- and that's twice the cost of most buns sold here. At lunch Koko offers bowls brimming with steamed rice, vegetables, and panko-crusted pork. Koko is also the best source for bubble tea, fruit smoothies, and Taiwanese shaved ice, made with fruit and condensed milk.

Asia Food Company

Located in the newly built Asian Town Center, Asia Foods is a massive grocery, bakery, and café all rolled into one. The market portion of the complex stocks the usual assortment of produce, rice, teas, seafood, meat and specialty items like balut eggs, embryo-filled duck eggs eaten whole. "Acquired taste" doesn't begin to describe them. In the rear of the space is an ever-expanding prepared-food operation. There is a large selection of steamed buns, with plump BBQ pork rolls going for just 80 cents. Bahn mi sandwiches are stacked up and ready for quick take-out, while more complicated stir-fries and noodle dishes are prepared to order.


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Photography by  Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1-5: Koko Bakery (more photos on our Face Book page)
- Photos 6-8: Superior Pho
- Photos 9-15:Tink Holl

Read more articles by Douglas Trattner.

Douglas Trattner is a fulltime freelance writer, editor and author. In addition to acting as Managing Editor of Fresh Water, he is the Dining Editor of Cleveland Scene, author of “Moon Handbooks: Cleveland,” and co-author with Michael Symon on two New York Times best-selling cookbooks. His work has appeared in Food Network magazine, Miami Herald, Globe and Mail, Wine & Spirits, Cleveland Magazine and others. He lives in Cleveland Hts. with his wife, two dogs, five chickens and 20,000 honeybees.
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