Offbeat eats: six of the best local ethnic eateries

La Plaza Supermarket
13609 Lakewood Hts. Blvd, Lakewood

While local stars such as Barrio and Momocho glitter amid the mod Mex craze, what Yelpers consistently deem to be the best tacos in Cleveland are served at a little supermarket tucked away near the I-90 Bunts exit in Lakewood. Peruse the shelves for religious icons, enormous piñatas, and the best deal on Mexican Coke (the kind in the old-school glass bottle) in town. Best of all, there’s a kitchen in the back serving traditional tacos for $2.50 and tostadas (think an open-faced hard taco) for $3. The meat is almost obscenely tender and flavorful: steak is the most popular option, but this author craves the carne asada, which is something like the Mexican version of barbecued pork. As an added bonus, there’s an incredibly generous salsa-and-toppings bar that features guacamole, various salsas, chopped cilantro, and whole roasted peppers and onions to top off your dish at no additional cost.

Drink Bar and Grill
4250 Pearl Rd., Old Brooklyn

A Prohibition-style cocktail lounge in a shot-and-beer neighborhood, Drink is a bar specializing in the unexpected. Foremost among the Old Brooklyn bar’s surprises are the Asian-influenced menu items. Owner Brian Ochs, the child of Korean immigrants, has incorporated his heritage into items like the Pork Belly Lettuce Wraps and the inimitable Bulgogi Burger. Once described by Cleveland Scene’s Doug Trattner as “Korean barbecue in a bun,” the burger is an explosively flavorful and tender combination of the sweet, spicy, and garlicky. Order it topped with kimchi to kick it up and add a Jazz Age classic cocktail such as the "Aviation" or "The Last Word" for less than $10. Drink has even more tricks up its sleeve: in this case, a strong Latin American spirit selection. For those who have never tried Cachaca or Pisco Porton before, the ultra-limey Caipirinha or the pillowy Pisco Sour make for an excellent introduction. No wonder this unexpected pub bills itself as "Cleveland's best kept secret."

<span class="content-image-text">Rumi's Market</span>Rumi's Market

Rumi’s Market and Deli
8225 Carnegie Ave., Fairfax

Situated in a prime location between University Circle and downtown (as long as you notice the sign), Rumi’s Market is favorite among local Uber drivers. Once inside, you’ll find a grocery with all the necessities plus an unparalleled selection of Middle Eastern staples: grape leaves, pomegranate juice, and olive oils from Lebanon and Greece get ample shelf space, and there’s an entire wall of imported cookies and sweets from the Arab world. It's impossible not to be lured into these fascinating and colorful aisles. Curious shoppers can take home an arghile, or hookah, for use in the home, but inescapable draw of Rumi’s the Uber contingent knows so well is the shop's prepared food. For fast Middle Eastern or Indian vegetarian on the go, these offerings are top shelf when it comes to quality and selection. All meats are halal, and the lamb kebabs are some of the most tender you’ll find in the city. There are exciting possibilities for its future: rumor has it Rumi’s is considering putting up a hookah tent in the parking lot once the weather warms up.

Algebra Tea House
2136 Murray Hill Rd., Little Italy

Nestled in the picturesque Murray Hill district, Algebra Tea House feels a world away from its neighboring eateries, where vino and red sauce flow and "Volare" plays endlessly in the background. In a sense, Algrebra's owner Ayman Alkayali, a Palestinian refugee who came to Cleveland to study at Case Western Reserve University, has cultivated his tea house to be an eclectic, peaceful space for discussing philosophy, religion, and art—or just enjoying a hand-fired mug of coffee or tea. Algebra’s kitchen offers a veritable tour of North Africa and the Levant: Iraqi kebabs, Damascus eggplant, Moroccan stew. It serves breakfast all day (including Shak-shooka, a Saudi favorite), and its hours, 7 a.m. – 11 p.m., are among the best of any coffee or tea house in town. Algebra also serves as a grocery, carrying staples of Middle Eastern cuisine such as zatar and tahini. Algebra opened for business mere weeks before 9/11 and, as the first non-Italian business in the neighborhood, it was first regarded as a suspicious interloper. The unique shop has endured all that and has become, as Al-Jazeera noted last year, "a strong part of the community."

<span class="content-image-text">Caribe Bake Shop</span>Caribe Bake Shop 

Caribe Bake Shop
2906 Fulton Rd., Clark-Fulton

Last year, Caribe Bake Shop moved into its larger digs, which owners built next to its original Fulton Road location. The new space has more seating, which is great news for any Clevelander seeking the “Puerto Rican typical food” at which Caribe excels. As the name implies, Caribe serves baked goods and sandwiches and carries essential grocery items, but the main reason to stop into this humble local favorite is the hot food. There’s delectable pinto bean stew with carrots and potatoes, and there’s the ever-popular roast pork or steak options. More daring diners should take the opportunity to try blood sausage (yes, it really is made with blood) and tripe (cow stomach or offal for the more refined), which, if you can get past the slightly chewy texture, is excellently seasoned and flavorful. The sweet plantains are a must. Clark-Fulton, Caribe’s host neighborhood, is an old Italian enclave that now plays host to Ohio’s densest Latino population and festivals inspired by area residents such as La Placita, during which some of Cleveland's best Latin American is served.

<span class="content-image-text">Sophia Tyl of Seven Roses Deli</span>Sophia Tyl of Seven Roses Deli
Seven Roses Deli
6301 Fleet Ave., Slavic Village

Cleveland has been doubling down on its Polish roots of late. For proof, look to hip bars serving pierogis or long lines at Sokolowski’s University Inn. With that sort of action playing out on the west side of the river, it’s high time that Seven Roses gets the lunch rush it deserves. Situated on the main drag of on-the-rise Slavic Village neighborhood, Seven Roses (Siedem Roz in Polish) wears its heritage on its sleeve: diners are greeted by the Polish coat of arms at the entrance, a display of flags at the counter, and a picture of Pope John Paul II behind the register. The café holds a small grocery for imported Polish goods: mostly chocolate, candy, and, of course, jarred sauerkraut. The lunch buffet runs Tuesday to Sunday and offers deliciously classic takes on the obligatory Polish fare of stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, and schnitzel. While our editor can't get enough of the sauerkraut, Chris Alvarado of the Slavic Village Development Corporation has a strong recommendation for a menu offering outside the buffet.

“Try the duck blood soup,” he advises.

Whether they stick to the classics or branch out with more advanced options, diners at Seven Roses will not be disappointed.

Billy Hallal
Billy Hallal

About the Author: Billy Hallal

Billy Hallal works as a freelance writer and an adult literacy advocate at Seeds of Literacy. You can find his writing on Northeast Ohio dining and culture at Thrillist and Cleveland Scene.