seeing the world, one delicious plate at a time

It's no exaggeration to say that Cleveland wouldn't be half the city it was and is without the steady influx of foreign-born peoples. But nowhere, perhaps, is our city's melting-pot pedigree more evident than on the plates served at ethnic eateries throughout town.
While Moses Cleaveland migrated merely from nearby Connecticut, he was followed in relatively quick succession by immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. Later, large numbers of Hispanics -- mainly of Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican decent -- also migrated here. Those folks held the door open for Asian immigrants, including large numbers of Chinese, Korean and Indian people. Exodus from the Middle East brought folks from Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon to the Great North Coast.
We have these brave pioneers to thank every time we tuck into a delicious plate of ethnic food, prepared with dignity and pride at any number of diverse ethnic eateries. Here is just an appetizer portion of the full feast:
While there are many Chinese restaurants older than Wonton Gourmet (3211 Payne Ave., 216-875-7000), few are better at capturing the soul and spirit of the Far East on a plate. Sure, you can order a dish of sweet and sour pork or moo goo gai pan, but most customers know to look beyond the Americanized menu when ordering. And Wonton couldn’t make that process any easier if it tried, papering the walls with color photos of every dish for easy identification. The succulent and crisp-edged pork and shrimp dumplings are heavenly, as are Wonton's soul satisfying Hong Kong-style noodle bowls. For a salty, spicy, crunchy kick in the teeth, try the salt-baked shrimp. These are eaten shell and all, with heaps of garlic and chiles providing the punch.
Through his matchless Anatolia Café (2270 Lee Rd., 216-321-4400), owner Yashar Yildirim has introduced many a Clevelander to the singular joys of authentic Turkish cuisine. Before he opened up his original Cedar Center shop, most of us wrongly believed that “gyro meat” was a mystery concoction assembled in a lab. At Anatolia, alternating layers of seasoned lamb and beef are roasted on a vertical spit, sliced thin, and deposited in a puffy, house-baked pita. Better yet, order the iskender, a grand dish of doner (gyro meat) served on a bed of butter-sautéed pita cubes and topped with tomato sauce and housemade yogurt.
Just down the hall from the uber-popular Superior Pho is Ha-Ahn (3030 Superior Ave., 216-664-1152), a sliver of a restaurant that practically resides in a hallway of the Golden Plaza. Despite the unconventional setting, this 7-table eatery delivers one of the city's best versions of bibimbap. Served in a blazing-hot earthenware bowl, the dish is layered with sizzling rice, cooked beef, sautéed vegetables and a fried egg. Squirt the whole affair with pungent chili paste, pop the egg, give a stir, and thank us later. Like most Korean restaurants, meals here begin with an assortment of house-made banchan, pickled side dishes like kimchi.
Dining at Empress Taytu (6125 St. Clair Ave., 216-391-9400) is like taking a crash course on the cuisine of this Northeast African nation. That's a good thing, because the practice is unique enough to warrant a lesson. Diners sit at small tables and share their meals communally off a single central platter. Long-simmered stews, redolent of exotic spice blends, are scooped up by hand using injera, a spongy fermented flatbread. In addition to chicken, beef and lamb dishes, there are a healthy number of veggie options consisting of lentils, greens, beans and peas. This is one of the most atypical dining experiences a person can enjoy in Cleveland.
In the early 1900s, Cleveland had cultivated the largest Slovenian population in the U.S., making it the third-largest Slovenian settlement in the world. In 1954, Slovenian immigrant Frank Sterle opened his lodge-like Sterles Slovenian Country House (1401 E. 55th St., 216-881-4181), specializing in made-from-scratch, stick-to-your-ribs, just-like-mom-used-to-make Eastern European chestnuts. Savor the Old World in dishes like liver and onions, roast pork and heavenly paprikash. But it's the Weinerschnitzel -- pounded, breaded and fried to golden perfection -- that continues to attract gastro-buffs like geeks to a Genius Bar.
To transform a garbanzo bean -- the knobby, misshapen runt of the food world -- into something edible let alone resplendent is no small feat. But that's precisely what numerous Middle Eastern restaurants do on a daily basis when they make hummus. Nate's Deli (1923 West 25th St., 216-696-7529), however, manages something more. Their version of this creamy spread is somehow smoother, nuttier, and richer than the rest. Perked up by lemon and garlic and served with fresh-baked pita, the dish finally gives vegetarians a reason to smile.
Too few of us likely have experienced the gustatory rapture that accompanies a freshly prepared pupusa. Indeed, too few of us likely even know what the heck a pupusa is. Don't fret: The good folks at Pupuseria La Bendicion (3685 W. 105th St., 216-688-0338) are here to edify. Emanating from the open kitchen of this modest eatery is the constant pat-pat-pat of cooks kneading and stuffing corn dough by hand. Resembling thick tortillas, the griddle-fried cakes are filled with cheese, beans and fried pork. They are served on a paper plate along with spicy cabbage slaw and mild tomato salsa. Bendicion also sells amazing soft tacos and tamales. "Blessing" indeed!
When Superior Pho (nee Pho Hoa) opened its doors (3211 Payne Ave., 216-781-7462) a decade ago, hardly anybody knew what pho was. Now, of course, eating this heart-warming beef noodle soup is a favorite pastime of the Cleveland food-obsessed, with no less than a half-dozen pho shops from which to choose. Despite fierce competition – or, perhaps, because of it -- this Asiatown noodle house still offers the best bowls going for the money. But Superior is no one-trick pony: Its bahn mi sandwiches are so damn good -- with layers of roast pork, pickled veggies, peppers and herbs -- they should be sold by the sack. That's how we buy them.

Photos Bob Perkoski

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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