Downtown used to be lousy with delis, the sort that take up residence in a dark, neglected corner of an office building and peddle weak coffee, soggy egg salad sandwiches and rubbery corned beef to landlocked commuters Monday through Friday. Many of those tatty delis vanished as the competition for lunch dollars heated up and diners began venturing out of their buildings for a better meal.
David Ina knows that story well. He spent much of his time growing up at his father's side at places like Goldie's Deli in Strongsville, which dad opened in 1990 and is still going strong, and later at Al's Deli, which ran for nine years at 55 Erieview Plaza. While Al's never dealt in soggy egg salad or leathery corned beef, it did suffer from poor visibility, limited foot traffic and cramped dimensions.
So Ina hatched a plan that would combine his father's decades of experience with his own newly developed culinary skills and repackage them for today's urban diner. The pair shuttered Al's in August and reopened it this past December in a sun-soaked corner space on a busy downtown intersection.
"It's a much better location with more exposure, better views, more seating and a better kitchen," Ina rattles off.
But the improvements go much deeper than skin-deep. While Ina did work alongside his father all those years, he went on to culinary school and later worked at top restaurants, including Crop Bistro, where he was sous chef for the past two years. Ina said that helping to run a kitchen as large and busy as the one at Crop really rounded out his skill set.
"It was a good opportunity for me to help run a big kitchen like that with a big staff," he says. "It also taught me about seasonal ingredients and scratch cooking."
So while Al's might look and feel like a typical corner deli — albeit a modern, attractive and comfortable one — it takes its food seriously. The pastrami is house smoked, the corned beef is house brined, the beef is house roasted, the fries are hand cut, and all soups and salad dressings are made right here. What didn't change is the service, which is as genuine and gracious as always.
Al's is one of the few places in town where a diner can order a house-smoked ham sandwich alongside a homemade falafel pita. That's because the breakfast, lunch and early dinner menu is a mix of American deli classics and Middle Eastern specialties like hummus, fattoush, tabbouleh, grape leaves and shawarma.
"With our Lebanese background we wanted to highlight and expand those items," Ina says. "Plus, with the popularity of the Mediterranean diet, it just makes sense."
The house corned beef is delicious. Enjoy it at breakfast in a side of corned beef hash ($3.79), at lunch piled onto soft rye ($8.29), or griddled to crispy perfection with sauerkraut and Swiss in a Reuben ($8.79). The shawarma is not spit-roasted, but it is marinated, grilled and tucked into a soft pita with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and tahini. Both beef and chicken versions are available ($8.29).
In addition to the Middle Eastern items and deli staples — including a non-soggy egg salad sandwich ($5.49) and the longstanding favorite Rich Club ($8.79) with turkey breast, bacon, tomato and mayo — Al's doles out early morning breakfast beginning at 6:30 a.m. every day but Sunday. For less than $6 a diner can dig into a platter of two eggs, sausage or ham, home fries and toast.
Hints of Ina's time in fine dining pop up in items like a burger ($8.79) built with Certified Angus Beef, the vegan-friendly soba noodle stir-fry ($8.49), and the cornmeal-crusted bone-in pork chop ($12.99) served with roasted Brussels sprouts and bacon gravy.
Not only did the new location on the main floor of the upscale Residences at 1717 — formerly the East Ohio Building — double the size of the dining room and kitchen, it landed them in the heart of downtown's booming residential market. Because of that, Ina expanded his weeknight hours to 7 p.m. in hopes of attracting a dinner clientele. So far, so good, he reports.
"Every day we run into challenges," he says. "But it's been a blessing to work with my parents. I was the only one out of my siblings and cousins to go into the food business."
In fact, Ina has gotten so good at running the business that his father finally can take a few steps back.
"He'd love to retire," Ina says of his dad. "This has allowed him to step away from the day-to-day operation."