The Best Things We Ate in Cleveland in 2021

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click to enlarge Goma dished up some of the best things we ate this year - Photo by Nic Paoletta
Photo by Nic Paoletta
Goma dished up some of the best things we ate this year

I, like many people, abstained from indoor dining between March 2020 and spring of this year, when I made a couple visits to the Wolstein Center. Looking back over the past year of dining, a theme emerged: all of my favorite meals were enjoyed inside a restaurant (except for barbecue, naturally), proving that take-out is no substitute for the dine-in experience.

Sushi at Goma
There might be no better place in town to enjoy sushi right now than Goma on East 4th Street. In contrast to Dante Boccuzzi’s own Ginko in Tremont, this flashy new eatery is open, accessible and wide-ranging in its offerings. From behind the large horseshoe bar, skilled fish cutters deliver brilliant sashimi, sushi and rolls. Order the botan-ebi and you’ll enjoy a plump piece of sweet shrimp served raw atop a fistful of vinegared rice. That delectable bite is quickly followed by the little guy’s head, now lightly battered and fried into a crunchy snack.

Mare Seafood Platter at Acqua di Luca
Even the tallest, priciest seafood towers never manage to live up to our expectations. A few raw oysters, a couple chewy clams, some watery boiled shrimp – all of it tepid, none of it worth the tariff. Acqua di Luca scraps the predictable tiered tower of chilled seafood in favor of a resplendent platter of buttery, wine-steamed shellfish. Roll up your sleeves and celebrate with a mountain of king crab legs, shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari, scallops and a whole lobster.

Sunday Gravy at Cent’s Pizza
I might have eaten more pizza in 2021 than in any previous year (save for those thrifty undergrad ones). But I also managed to enjoy better slices than ever thanks to new entries like Chatty’s, Pizzeria DiLauro, Boom’s, ETalian and Cornerspot. But the best pizza award goes out to Cent’s, which opened last summer in Ohio City. Vincent Morelli not only is making some of the best Neapolitan-ish pies in town, he’s dishing them up in a festive tangerine-colored dream world.

Gujarati Thali at Annapurna
Indian food fans in Cleveland don’t come across many thalis, those large circular platters containing myriad small vessels of food. Annapurna in Parma offers two different versions, both more than worth the drive. But the Gujarati edges out the Punjabi thanks to a more exciting blend of breads, curries, pickles, chutneys and dessert. And like everything served at this mom-and-pop shop, it’s vegetarian.

Chicken Chow Mein at Cafe Everest
I can’t recall the last time I ordered chow mein, but it likely was decades ago. Ruined in childhood by plates of soggy, soupy, salty adaptations, why would I. Café Everest, a Nepalese and Indian restaurant in the Bellaire-Puritas neighborhood, opened my eyes to a whole new world. The version prepared here stars firm, not soft or flabby, noodles that are just barely coated in sauce. The predominant flavors are garlic, ginger, cumin and chile, with only a few dashes of soy sauce.

Brisket at Joe's Barbecue
I have only one issue with Joe’s Barbecue: it’s located 45 miles from home in rural Brimfield Township. Joe Menendez works magic out of a wood-sided trailer parked on a small gravel lot. Inside that wagon sits a 1,000-pound offset smoker turning out whole racks of ribs, half chickens, sliced turkey and pulled pork. But it’s the bark-blistered brisket, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper and smoked over wood for 14 hours, that bothers my dreams. Succulent, drippy, bendy beef pudding it is.

Biscuits and Gravy at Sleepy Rooster
Craig Fitzgerald is wise enough to know when and how to play the chef card. Most of his culinary school chops are reserved for ingredient selection, technique and execution in the kitchen rather than wild creativity on the plate. It’s breakfast after all. In the stellar biscuits and gravy, those flaky house-baked comfort cakes are smothered in peppery sausage gravy, which seeps into the crispy home fries, which also are exemplary.

Combination Platter at Habesha
Some cuisines demand to be enjoyed in a restaurant, preferably with friends, and Ethiopian certainly is one of them. The experience of sitting around a colorful platter of food – literally breaking bread together – elevates the food to new heights. Habesha allowed us to once again savor that feeling as we devoured a doro wot combination dotted with berbere-spiced chicken, lentil stews and refreshing mixed salads, all scooped up with injera.

Literally Everything at Arthur Treacher’s
In an odd twist of fate, I visited Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips in Garfield Heights one week before it closed, thus making the Cuyahoga Falls location the last man standing. I went knowing that time was running out for the fabled brand, which peaked at 825 stores. The one on Mayfield Road was a family favorite growing up in the `70s. I shared the experience in real time with my brothers over the phone as I (we) dunked crispy pie-shaped fish fillets in tartar sauce, inhaled squiggly fried clams and disappeared one too many hush puppies.

Omakase at Bar Oni
Bar Oni is the amusement park version of a restaurant, where chef-owner Matthew Spinner (the carnival barker) inveigles passersby into his concessions tent for a night of chow, rowdiness and hijinks. Simply put, it’s a blast. While boozing is a main draw, it’s the izakaya-style small plates that provide the base. Get the omakase and let Spinner and team prepare a steady stream of grilled vegetable and meat kebabs like blistered peppers, glazed pork belly and every blessed part of the yardbird.

Mango Salmon at Lulo Kitchen
One of the nicest surprises of 2021 was stumbling into Lulo Kitchen in the Warehouse District, which has the feel of a boho-chic juice bar on Tulum’s famous beach road. There, chef Stefhanie Montoya lovingly prepares pan-Latin dishes morning, noon and night. Like a rainbow on a plate, the mango salmon features a flank of flaky seared salmon atop a bed of rice that is topped with finely diced fruits and veggies and ringed by vibrant wheels of watermelon radish.

Twisted Taino in Ohio City
I caught up with enthusiastic chef Jose Melendez before he relocated his Latin hotspot from a stall at the Sauce the City Galley to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Parma. I’m assuming his vibrant, creative, satisfying food has only improved since Twisted Taino's move. In dishes like Margie’s Barrel, his stellar mofongo is stuffed with garlic shrimp, guajillo-roasted pork or crispy chicharron before getting sauced and garnished with fried potato sticks.

Birria Tacos at Cloak & Dagger
The owners of Cloak & Dagger indeed are making magic in Tremont. They so thoroughly have transformed the interior of a revolving-door property that memories grow short and evenings stretch on. The cocktail program is second to none, with illustrated menus ticking off dreamy elixirs. To eat, there are vegan birria tacos made from mushrooms that prove the perfect partner to drinks like the bourbon-based King of the Dead.

About The Author

Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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