Cleveland's Ethnic Smörgåsbord

The world at your lips right here on the shores of Lake Erie


The phrase "melting pot" gets tossed around with about as much consideration as a fleeting Twitter hashtag. But Cleveland's deep and broadly branched immigrant roots long ago began supplying the ingredients for a well-seasoned melting pot of ethnic cuisines. Thanks to wave after wave of newcomer, today's adventurous diners now have their pick of authentic ethnic eateries.

For starters, consider that Cleveland has restaurants devoted to Ethiopian, Korean, Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, Polish, Vietnamese, Colombian and Jamaican cuisines. Those, of course, are in addition to good old standards like Italian, French, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Thai and great Jewish deli.

What's more, as diners grow more sophisticated about particular cuisines, operators reward us with more faithful representations of their native dishes. Take Indian food, for example. For years, diners had been happily munching on time-honored North Indian staples at institutions like Saffron Patch and Café Tandoor. Today, the entire subcontinent is on display at places like Taste of Kerala, Namaste and Udupi, where the flavors and textures of South India are represented.

The same holds true for Asian food. Sure, there are still a few antediluvian relics hawking moo goo gai pan and egg foo young, but those restaurants now are the exception to the rule. Heat freaks can fan the flames at Szechuan Gourmet, fans of Beijing-style kebabs can tuck into charcoal-fired lamb skewers at Han Chinese, and noodle slurpers can get their fill of shrimp dumpling and noodle soup at Wonton Gourmet.

It seems you can't turn a corner without stepping into a bowl of pho, but you won't hear us complaining. It's a near-perfect food, and one we survive on throughout winter. Since the first bowls landed in Cleveland —at Vietnamese places like Minh-Anh and Superior Pho — we have seen others follow suit (tastefully) at Ninh Kieu, Pho Thang and Pho & Rice.

For our money, food doesn't get much more thrilling than Korean fare. And there's been no better time in Cleveland to explore its intricacies thanks to killer joints like Seoul Garden in Parma, Ha Anh downtown, and Miega in Asiatown. If you are not regularly eating your weight in banchan, pajeon, bibimbop and yukgaejang, you are missing out.

There's more to Turkish food than pita sandwiches, and places like Anatolia Cafe, Dervish Grill and Istanbul Mediterranean Grill have been opening our minds and mouths to the pleasures of fried calves' liver, chicken adana and iskender for the past few years. The cuisine is approachable, healthy and ideally suited to our meat-and-potatoes sensibilities.

If you have been paying attention at all, you likely have noticed more and more killer Jamaican joints opening up around town. They tend to be located on the fringes of neighborhoods, are almost exclusively carry-out, and dish out large portions of tasty stews served with rice and beans. Our favorites include Ocho Rios, Taste of Jamaica and Irie Patties.

There might be no finer comfort food than Polish and Hungarian heart warmers like stuffed cabbage, veal paprikash and weinerschnitzel. This is our sweet spot, culinarily speaking, and Clevelanders have a wide range of delicious options. You can do no wrong at places like Sokolowski's University Inn, Sterle's Slovenian House, Balaton Restaurant and Marta's.

Even typically stuck-in-time cuisines like Mexican have been, generally speaking, improving with the times. For the best old-school street tacos within miles, folks beat feet to La Plaza Supermarket in Lakewood. For something a little more new-school, there's no besting El Carnicero or Orale Kitchen in Ohio City.

So, what are we missing? Well, as good as we have it here in the 216, there are gaps. There currently exist zero true Korean barbecues, joints where diners can sit around a grill and cook up some bulgogi over an open flame. Our Cuban offerings are slim, limited largely to Cubano sandwiches. Same goes for Greek, where gyros stand as the sum total of our experience with that cuisine. Authentic Spanish food would be great, as would Russian. And don't get us started on barbecue.

As Cleveland enjoys a fresh influx of transplants and boomerangs and immigrants, that landscape is bound to change and improve to fill those holes.