Whether it’s a food truck, traditional diner, or five-star celebrity restaurant – there’s always a place in Cleveland to satisfy any culinary palette.
But not all of these places are the city’s hottest, newest or trendiest eateries. Plenty of unassuming, and sometimes hidden, food destinations dot neighborhoods across the city.
Often family-owned, these restaurants represent a micro Cleveland food scene that is full of passion, authenticity, and a casual vibe with a come-as-you-are attitude.
Their respective chefs are crafting specialties to serve hungry locals craving genuine, savory bites at an affordable price. While sometimes these culinary treasures are well-known, others remain off the grid. So Fresh Water
scoured the city to find five places to grab your next meal that sometimes fly under the radar.
Frank's Falafel House
1823 W. 65th St., Cleveland
Just as the name implies, Frank's Falafel House
's specialty is the crispy, fluffy, chick pea patties known as falafel. A popular staple in the Middle East, this vegetarian patty is served on a salad, in a wrap, as burger or alone.
The atmosphere is low-key, with the food as the main focus. Frank's serves many other traditional Middle Eastern dishes such as Shish Tawook, marinated chicken in a garlic sauce with a side of grape leaves; and shawarma, seasoned beef served in a wrap with tahini sauce and tabouli, both of which are popular.
But the house hummus and the falafel wrap are the clear winners. Both dishes are as authentic as they come. The hummus is creamy and tangy, and the falafel is hot and crispy – packed with perfect spice combination of coriander, cilantro, garlic and onions.
If you're looking for vegetarian options, this is the place to go. It's affordable food made with fresh produce by experienced chefs who know their culture inside and out.
Villa y Zapata
8505 Madison Ave., Cleveland
Step inside Villa y Zapata
, and the plain red and green décor may leave you skeptical about its reputation for serving authentic Mexican food. But one dip of a homemade tortilla chip into the fresh house salsa erases all skepticism with a refreshing, yet spicy, combination of flavors.
Nothing opens up the palette like Villa’s famous chile rellenos, a cheese-stuffed, roasted, poblano pepper dish that originated in the Mexican city of Puebla. The house fajitas are another must-try. Served in a searing cast iron skillet with choice of meat or the vegetarian option, the refined beans are creamy and the vegetables are tender, but still al dente and bursting with chili flavor. For two fajitas, it's a reasonable $8, perfect for sharing or a meal for one.
Owner Lucrecia Santiago says serving people good food was always a passion she wanted to pursue. So when the previous owners of Villa y Zapata closed the restaurant after 30 years, she saw it as an opportunity to put her own spin on Mexican cuisine and bought the place in 2004.
“I want to serve people dishes that are authentic and reflective of Latin cuisine and our culture,” she says. Santiago must being doing something right because the seats are always occupied by raving customers and stomachs are full with wholesome and authentic food.
Owner Jin Hu of Seoul Hot PotSeoul Hot Pot
3709 Payne Ave., Cleveland
Located off the beaten path, Seoul Hot Pot
is literally a bite of heaven for those craving some of the city's best Korean food. If it wasn't for word-of-mouth marketing, however, many would overlook the narrow, green building that dishes out savory seafood dishes and classic Korean barbecue.
Owners Jin and Bok Hu emigrated from Seoul with their three children back in 1983. With the goal to live out the American dream, the Hus first opened DeAngelo's Pizza in 1985.
“We discovered it wasn't working, and everyone who came in wanted our Korean food,” says Jin. “So here we are making food we know.”
Jin’s wife, Bok, can't stop smiling while she is cooking. She oversees food preparation, while Jin greets the customers with hot corn tea, a smile and an excitement about his culture that is contagious.
The pride the Hus take in their food is obvious. The presentation of the dishes is also something to note. The haemulpajun pan-fried seafood pancake is served with at least ten additional small dishes, which include syrup covered soy beans, bamboo shoots, marinated eggplant, and bone Jell-O, among others.
Another classic is the bibimbap, a rice dish with vegetables that usually includes bean sprouts, carrots, and spinach topped with a sunny side up egg. The no-frills vibe reiterates that this place is all about dishing up delicious, well-prepared Korean favorites.
The Rib Cage Smokehouse and Bar
2214 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
The atmosphere inside the Rib Cage
echoes that of a Texas saloon, as do the smoked pulled-pork sandwiches. Bartender James Holloway makes any customer feel right at home with recommendations on the bar's most popular eats and potables.
Known for their smoked meats and southern-inspired sides, the Rib Cage is a true farm-to-table establishment, using local produce, meat and poultry. The staff smokes all of their meats at least three times a week in the custom-built smoker located outside, behind the restaurant.
Owner Robert Hill used to own a seafood restaurant where customers always suggested the need for good, authentic ribs in Cleveland Heights. Since the city doesn't allow outdoor cooking, Hill knew the process to create a smokehouse would be difficult. But is wasn't impossible.
“The idea started with a conversation between my wife and I,” Hill recalls. “There was a need for smoked meats. It took years of going to city council meetings and petitioning 75 percent of the local residents in a three-block radius to agree to a smokehouse. But it eventually happened and we will be going on our fourth year.”
Must-haves on the menu include the Not So Philly Cheese Steak for $12, which is made with smoked brisket and topped off with nontraditional homemade brie sauce; and the No Condiment Burger, a half-pound beef patty with Chef Marvin's secret spice blend topped with your choice of cheese for $12.
9249 W. Sprague Road, North Royalton
If you can't travel to India anytime soon, but crave a spicy coconut curry, look no further than Jaipur Junction
. This neighborhood hotspot is a favorite among locals for the North Indian dishes. Owner Mohammad Dawood, originally from Bangladesh, opened the restaurant in 1997.
“I studied Indian cuisine and wanted a place that gave people the chance to try dishes they normally wouldn't have the opportunity to [experience],” says Dawood.
Since each dish is so different than the next, the best option is to take advantage of Dawood’s all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $9.95 during the week. The servers are attentive and the atmosphere is vibrant with colorful orange walls and Indian-inspired décor.
On the buffet one can find fresh, warm naan bread along with a variety of meat and vegetarian dishes. One vegetarian favorite is the Alu Gobi, a delicious ragout with potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes, ginger and garlic. The tandoori chicken, made of spicy chicken legs marinated in a yogurt dressing then cooked in a tandoori oven, is also popular.