A perfect slice of Cleveland: AsiaTown

Cleveland’s AsiaTown has become one of the city's most popular destinations for all things Far East, but you only have to go as far east as East 40th to East 30th Streets (or East 21th if you include Old Chinatown) between St. Clair and Payne Avenues. Nestled therein amid Cleveland’s St. Clair Superior neighborhood and the Campus District, AsiaTown is host to colorful cultural festivals, diverse global markets, arts and entertainment venues, and authentic Pan-Asian dining.

A Feast of Festivals and Fairs

For the uninitiated, a full-blown AsiaTown experience is on tap for this weekend when the seventh Asian Festival will ignite Payne Avenue between East 30th and East 27th Streets. The event has evolved into one of Cleveland’s most popular spring festivals. Staffed completely by volunteers, this two-day celebration highlights Asia’s vast diversity and showcases the cultural histories of that far off place by celebrating Northeast Ohio's Asian Americans. They represent China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and many more. Entertainment will be non-stop on two stages throughout the weekend and will include performances such as a magic show, lion dance and Colors of Asia fashion show. Other activities include sumo wrestling, a Cosplay 103 competition, the K-Pop Cover Dance competition, martial arts displays, children’s arts and crafts, and a plethora of food options from more than 10 Asian restaurants. Visitors will be met by the sweet and savory aromas of grilled chicken, fish, lamb, and beef, skewered and ready to eat while waiting in line for the next round of noodles, dumplings, sushi, or ice cream.

<span class="content-image-text">Asia Town Festival</span>Asia Town Festival

The Asian Festival has seen increased participation and enormous expansion year after year. Last year, the festival drew 45,000 attendees, with more expected this year. The 2016 Asian Festival takes place this Saturday and Sunday, May 21-22, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Parking and admission are free.

Building on the success of that venerable event, Night Market Cleveland debuted in 2015 to resounding acclaim. Similar to markets in cities such as New York and San Francisco, Night Market was the first of its kind for Cleveland. Held before one of Cleveland's formerly forgotten glittering gems, the historic remnant of Cleveland's Chinatown on Rockwell Avenue, the monthly summertime event features live music and dance performances, kiosks selling handmade arts, unforgettable food options very similar to those at the Asian Festival and an array of potent potables including Asian inspired cocktail fusions and classic western drinks.

<span class="content-image-text">Chinese New Year Lion Dance at Li Wah at Asia Plaza</span>Chinese New Year Lion Dance at Li Wah at Asia Plaza

“The inspiration was to create an event that would be authentically Asian yet uniquely Cleveland – a true representation of the community in which the event is being held.” event founder Brendan Trewella says. “There was such an overwhelming willingness to participate. Everyone from the general public to the restaurants and retail vendors took a huge chance on a new event and were amazingly supportive of its success,” he adds, noting that the vendor pool expanded and the attendance jumped from 5,000 to 20,000 over last year's season. That success was duly noted. Presented by the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation and the Campus District, Night Market Cleveland received the Vibrant City Award for Neighborhood Branding and Marketing by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress earlier this month.

While the forthcoming Aug. 26 and Sept. 30 Night Markets are finalized, event organizers are working through security and scheduling details with the city regarding the forthcoming June 24 and July 29 dates on account of the RNC. Particulars notwithstanding, the fledgling Night Market Cleveland has already positioned itself to become a longstanding tradition.

<span class="content-image-text">The Cleveland Flea</span>The Cleveland Flea

Another popular addition to the neighborhood is the monthly Cleveland Flea. Held on the Tyler Village grounds at East 36th Street and Superior Avenue, the eclectic bazaar offers everything from artisanal and locally made food and beverages, to jewelry, furniture, apparel, and more. Over 170 vendors attract a significant following and offer both vintage wares and new creations every month. The next Flea is scheduled for June 11th.

From Hello Kitty to Bibimbop and Beyond

Retail and grocery shopping options abound in AsiaTown. Home wares, fresh bamboo, all things Hello Kitty, baubles, imported candy and treats (try: Milky Chu Chu Bar popsicles), collectibles, herbals (yes, ginseng comes in both Korean and American varieties), every sort of tea you can imagine, giant sacks of rice and jolly Buddha's of various sizes can be purchased throughout the neighborhood's eye-popping malls and colorful standalone shops. Perhaps the most valuable find is an abundance of fresh and inexpensive produce, meats, and Asian pantry items. Those seeking out hard to find items such as live frogs and fish need to look no further than AsiaTown’s grocery stores. Those exotic items are available alongside freshly butchered meats and seafood, a particular type of noodle, chili, or dried mushrooms and just about every other Asian kitchen staple you can imagine.

<span class="content-image-text">Asiatown shopping delights</span>Asiatown shopping delights

Kitchen tools, dining room accessories, spices, oils, snacks, and exotic fruit and vegetables are also found in shops such as Tink Holl Food Market on East 36th and Good Harvest Foods Market on Payne Avenue. Park-To-Shop Supermarket, adjacent to Asia Plaza at the intersection of Payne and East 30th Street, boasts all of these offerings as well as freshly made meals to go. Be sure to visit the counter where you can grab a quick and inexpensive snack on your way out – perhaps a Bánh mì sandwich, which is a Vietnamese offering of pork pâté, roasted pork, cucumbers, pickled Daikon radish and carrots, jalapeño, cilantro, and mayonnaise served on a French baguette.

Asia Plaza is also home to a stunning array of eateries, starting with Li Wah, which offers classic and contemporary Chinese cuisine. Aside from the extensive menu of both authentic and americanized versions of Chinese recipes, Li Wah boasts the best dim sum in Cleveland. Hundreds of diners pack the restaurant during weekend lunch hours, choosing from dozens of steamed, fried, boiled, and baked items that constantly circle the tables on steel dim sum carts. Chicken feet, har gow (shrimp and ginger dumplings encased in subtle rice paper), siu-mai (pork and scallion dumplings), roast duck, fried taro, wonton soup, congee, egg custard, and curried mussels are just a few of the delectable offerings. Visit Li Wah any day of the week for a lunch of dim sum and you won't be disappointed, especially if you wash it down with a Mai Tai or two from the full service bar.

<span class="content-image-text">Superior Pho</span>Superior Pho

Just a couple blocks east on Payne is Wonton Gourmet and BBQ, a unique dining destination specializing in Mandarin and Cantonese cuisine. Wonton Gourmet and BBQ boasts a strong and long-standing following and has not faltered at all in the midst of a recent ownership change. The eatery's specialties include a variety of homemade dumplings used for menu items such as their chive pot stickers, Three Flavor Dumpling Soup, roasted duck and Shrimp Wonton Noodle Soup. Seasonal steamed and stir-fried vegetables, fried rice, pan-fried noodles, and hot pot casseroles round out the menu. None of it disappoints, as this is one of the best Chinese restaurants in AsiaTown. Some would extend that designation to all of Northeast Ohio.

A list of AsiaTown restaurants would not be complete without Superior Pho. Located at East 30th and Superior, Superior Pho has been dishing out the best pho in Cleveland for years. Alongside crisp spring rolls, rice dishes, and the tangy Chicken Cabbage Salad, Superior Pho offers about a dozen soups with the classic broth or vegetarian options. Across the hall from Superior Pho resides Ha-Ahn Restaurant, specializing in Korean and Japanese cuisine. Within this narrow restaurant you can find traditional sushi, sashimi, and Korean dishes of bibimbap (warm rice bowl topped with vegetables and seaweed) and Yukgaejang (spicy Korean soup of shredded beef and scallions).

<span class="content-image-text">Koko Bakery</span>Koko Bakery

Finally, if you are craving a sweet treat then look no further than Koko Bakery. Located at East 37th and Payne, Koko offers all natural goods with no preservatives and no trans fat. Everything from chocolate covered strawberries, to mango tarts, red bean paste sweets, and layered cakes can be found in this bright and airy boutique bakery. Koko Bakery, notably, will be at this weekend's Asian Festival, as will Li Wah.

And lastly for those whose calendar is booked for all the festivals, but want a dining experience with a little flair, the monthly AsiaTown Food Tour is a rollicking bus ride with a handful of stops for an array of dishes and cocktails.

A Place for Artists

Not to be confused with Asia Plaza, Asian Town Center, located at East 38th and Superior is home to another bountiful fresh produce market, Cleveland Aikikai self defense studio, Viva Dance Studio, Bal Wel Herbal Store and Korean and Vietnamese restaurants. The Center also hosts free Tai Chi sessions every Sunday from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

On the second floor of the center, visitors will find an artists’ haven: Negative Space Gallery (NSG). Owned by Gadi Zamir and wife Amelea, NSG accommodates patrons with locally made fine arts, a performance stage, a kitchen and coffee bar, and plenty of comfortable seating. The space opened in 2010.

<span class="content-image-text">Painting by Jenna Fournier at Negative Space Gallery</span>Painting by Jenna Fournier at Negative Space Gallery

Zamir subsequently received a 2013 Community Partnership for Arts and Culture Fellowship and has since expanded the not-for-profit gallery, which has become a place where artists can collaborate, create, and showcase their work. The Zamirs use the space to create their own artwork and also provide generous accommodations for 20-30 visual artists' exhibitions each year. NSG hosts a monthly open mic night, local and touring bands, and occasional movie screenings.

Zamir was born and raised in Jerusalem and moved to Cleveland in 1999. “I liked Asian Town Center because there were a lot of opportunities for growth,” Zamir says of the developing neighborhood. “The biggest surprise that I had was how open and welcoming the Asian community can be. The owners of the building are progressive, and think outside the box when creating businesses that are very unique and special," he says.

"In our experience, the AsiaTown community is very modern and forward thinking.”

Further reading: a perfect slice of Little Italy and another of Detroit Shoreway.

Rebecca Groynom
Rebecca Groynom

About the Author: Rebecca Groynom

Rebecca Groynom is a freelance writer, photographer, and resident of Cleveland Heights. In addition to writing for Fresh Water Cleveland, she has been published in several scientific journals, and her photography has been showcased in exhibitions throughout the US.