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the diverse language of food: a guide to ethnic markets

La Borincana

La Borincana employee Frankie Gonzalez and owner Enrique Muniz Jr

La Borincana

La Borincana

La Borincana

Rumi's Market

Dillon Ali manager of Rumi's Market

Rumi's Market

Rumi's Market

Rumi's Market

Tink Holl Food Market

Tink Holl Food Market

Tink Holl Food Market

Tink Holl Food Market

Tink Holl Food Market

Seven Roses Deli

Sophia Tyl of Seven Roses Deli

Seven Roses Deli

Seven Roses Deli

Cleveland's ethnic markets are a world unto themselves with brightly colored packages festooned with inscrutable foreign languages, coolers full of yogurt sodas and Malta drink, tanks teeming with live fish and row upon row of curry, hot sauce and pickled peppers.

To appreciate these local gems, one must imagine being an expat in a far-off land. How comforting it would be to find packages of King Arthur flour and Oreos lining the shelves next to bottles of Schweppes tonic water and Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink.
 
"(Newcomers) can feel at home here," says Global Cleveland president Joy Roller, of the area's diverse ethnic markets. "They can have their culture, their smells, their meals. They're not going to feel like they're in a foreign place."
 
When a larger community speaks directly to a specific immigrant population via the language of food, it's a strengthening and stabilizing element with profound impact, says Roller. "It shows people who might be interested in coming to Cleveland that there is a real presence of ethnic communities here."
 
When they do come, they bring rich diversity and unique business acumen.
 
"Immigrants are risk takers by nature," says Roller. "We know that immigrants create businesses at twice the rate of native born citizens. They also pay taxes. They buy homes. They buy goods and services. That's why attracting immigrants and refugees is so critically important to Cleveland's future as it is to any city's future."
 
From Trinidad to Guatemala in Ohio City
 
La BorincanaThe unremarkable exterior of La Borincana, located at 2127 Fulton Road in Ohio City, belies its frenetic interior, wherein calypso and reggae music thrum amid the different languages of patrons and employees. When owner Enrique Muniz Jr. first took over the business in March 1994, the store stocked mainly Puerto Rican fare. Now the Ohio City treasure bills itself as the largest importer of Spanish food in Northeast Ohio, boasting authentic products from 21 countries with a focus on all things Hispanic, but with a nod to African and Indian cultures as well.
 
The close quarters of the store invite a certain intimacy. Each aisle heralds its contents with a sign designating the country it represents. Most of the shelves are brimming. Hence the sparse offerings beneath the Argentina sign seem odd.
 
"They're exporting hardly anything," says Muniz, citing that country's political climate. He's run into similar problems with Venezuela and Uruguay.
 
Such troubles do not deter his customers, who come from as far away as Canada, Erie and Louisville to purchase mango Kool-Aid, staggering selections of dried beans and exotic meats such as goat tripe, fresh cow feet and bull pizzles.
 
Bull pizzles?
 
"The Jamaicans make soup out of it," says Muniz. "We have the niche-niche of the market."
 
Muniz's support for countries such as Nigeria and Liberia extends beyond the walls of his quirky store. He backs their local advocate associations, as well as their scholarship funds.
 
"I also help by hiring refugees," says Muniz. "All the Africans working here are refugees. They came here legally through the Catholic Church. No one wanted to hire them, but we opened our arms and hired them."
 
Middle Eastern with a modern flair
 
Rumi's MarketWith its brightly lit aisles, meat counter and a lively prepared food section, Rumi's Market, 8225 Carnegie Avenue, is no less than a full-service modern grocery store, but with a sophisticated Middle Eastern sensibility. For example, manager Dillon Ali has more to offer than familiarity with the store's expansive stock. The Bangladesh native also speaks English, Russian, Bengali and Urdu. Appropriate enough considering the store carries staples from points across the Middle East.
 
"We have all kinds of food," says Ali, tagging Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
 
"I wish you could see some of the reactions from customers," adds owner Mamad Isik, who came to the United States from Turkey in 2008. "They love this place. It's a piece of home. Some of them—believe it or not—would drive three or four hours before we existed." What surprised the Turkey native, however, is that half of his clientele is American.
 
"We were expecting to have 80 percent ethnic people and 20 percent local/American," he says. Isik credits his fresh exotic produce and grass fed goat and lamb.
 
Ironically, Isik sees his business in a classic American way. "As you know, America is a melting pot. You can see anybody from any part of the world." And so it is amid the aisles of Rumi's, where the items come from 15 different countries and the shoppers from countless points across the globe. Hence, Ali's fluency in four languages comes in handy.
 
"Business is fantastic," says Isik, who also enjoys a vibrant client base courtesy of the nearby Cleveland Clinic, with its international patients and their families. "However, we have room to improve. We are working really hard to inform the clientele that we are here to serve their needs."
 
Triple score in Asia Town
 
Tink Holl Food MarketAsk Kim Tran, who works at Tink Holl Food Market at 1735 East 36th Street in AsiaTown, what the best part of her job is and her answer might surprise you.
 
"You can meet a lot of people," says the Vietnamese native. "You can learn when they speak." Tran has picked up a good deal of English and simple phrases such as "how are you" and "thank you" in Mexican and Chinese.
 
Using one of her second languages, she aptly describes the store's inventory, from the colorful display of Chinese Lanterns to the bins of cuttlefish balls and quail eggs.
 
"We have a lot of stuff," she says, adding that it comes from Japan, China, India, Thailand and Vietnam, among others. Customers come for the reasonably priced produce, says Tran, and many Americans come for the fresh fish, which eerily hold court over the proceedings from crowded tanks.
 
Tink Holl has been in business for 14 years--a testimony to the surrounding Asian community. That the business has very similar competition within a stone's throw at Park to Shop, 1580 East 30th, and Good Harvest Foods Market, 3038 Payne Avenue, both of which also do a robust business, further underscores the strength of this tight-knit Cleveland community.
 
A Tiny Mediterranean Island
 
Mediterranean Imported Foods is that little grocery nestled in the northwest corner of the West Side Market. It's been in the same family for nearly 50 years.
 
"My grandfather came here from Greece in 1965," says Marco Mougianis. "He opened the store in 1967. My dad currently owns it."
 
Initially geared to the area's Greek population, the stock has changed over the years and now includes a wide selection of gourmet cheese and Mediterranean ingredients, as well as items from Italy and France.  For all that has stayed the same, the store has managed to appeal to a changing demographic over the decades.
 
"It was a lot of ethnics originally when we opened," says Mougianis. "Now it's a lot of kids, 17- and 18-year-olds from Ignatius, kids in their mid-20s that live in the neighborhood, younger people looking to get into the food scene and find new things or restart old traditions."
 
A difficult road with plenty of heart
 
Seven Roses DeliThe scene along Fleet Avenue is challenging for local businesses at the very least. The ongoing Fleet Avenue Streetscape project has the area under very heavy construction with one lane of eastbound traffic only. While many storefronts are shuttered, Seven Roses Deli, 6301 Fleet Avenue, soldiers on.
 
The old-world feel of the shop, which stocks a modest selection of polish and European grocery items and a smoked polish kielbasa made on site, lends itself to the quaint dining room and luncheon buffet, which features authentic homemade food, including kielbasa, potato pancakes, sauerkraut and a perfect bit of homemade torte or poppy seed cake made by the kitchen's matriarch, Sophia Tyl, who immigrated from Wies Siemnien, Poland in 1965. She runs Seven Roses, which opened in 2004, with her daughter. The family lives in the space above the shop.
 
"I love to cook," says Tyl, adding that she'll try something new once in a while but "I love the old fashioned food, the ethnic food from scratch." In true old-school style, all of her recipes are in her head. "I never measure." Eggs and vegetables are organic and sourced from Ohio farms, primarily Amish. She freezes the fresh vegetables to get through the winter.
 
"It's a different taste from what you buy in the store."
 
Sadly, the construction situation has discouraged many of Seven Roses' regular customers.
 
"We don't have any people," says Tyl. "We're not going to make it for the electric." But then she perks up with optimism over the upcoming holidays and the usual surge in business they bring.
 
Clevelanders can only hope this delicate bouquet survives Fleet Avenue's transition, particularly since so many of the ethnic businesses that once characterized this street have not.
 
Tyl and her family are not completely alone. Just down the block sits Krusinski's Finest Meats, 6300 Heisley Avenue. The grocery selection may be limited, but the service counter is full up with homemade sausages, smokies, pierogi and stuffed cabbage. John Krusinski, who passed away in 2012, established the noted corner store circa 1953.
 
As if to exemplify how things endure, however, Bob, who works the counter and cash register, started at this job just after he graduated from high school no less than 53 years ago.
 
In the city and across the globe
 
While Fresh Water wholly expects readers to point out the markets we missed in the comment section, before we leave the topic of international shopping alone, here are a few other notable destinations.
 
Almadina Imports, 11550 Lorain Avenue, offers all things Arabic; and while Athens Foods produces the country's most popular phyllo dough (that would be the luscious flaky layers betwixt blankets of nuts in a serving of baklava), they also run a diverse grocery store that caters to the area's Greek and Mediterranean communities. For the Slovenian and German set, Hansa Import Haus, 2717 Lorain Avenue, in Ohio City is a must stop (and is also in the middle of an expansion). The overwhelming opinion on Yelp re: La Plaza Supermarket, 13609 Lakewood Heights Boulevard, is that the best tacos in town can be found here as well as any number of Hispanic grocery items. The Gust Gallucci Company, Inc., 6610 Euclid Avenue, barely needs an introduction, but is the penultimate in authentic Italian shopping. For those wanting kosher options, Unger's Kosher Market and Bakery can be found at 1831 South Taylor Road.
 
A better place to live in
 
Touring Cleveland's diverse ethnic markets is truly a micro-trip around the world. Each of these shops reflects the universal language of food in its myriad and wonderful dialects. Their unique offerings, international clientele and multi-lingual employees represent true American spirit, and one that was perhaps best summarized by Enrique Muniz Jr. of La Borincana.
 
"If the world was like our store with all the different ethnic groups and all the different employees all getting along, the world would be a better place to live in."
 

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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