The Joy of Fried Guts

What’s the best Cleveland grub you’ve ever had? We asked the experts.

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Off-the-Menu Exotic

It was at the rehearsal dinner for her son's wedding that Donita Anderson was introduced to her all-time favorite dish — a salad, of all things. The locale? Pacific East in Cleveland Heights.

"I'm Burmese, and Susan, the co-owner, is Burmese too," says Anderson, executive director of North Union Farmers Market. "She created this wonderful salad that tastes similar to the dishes I had growing up. I've only seen it in places like D.C. or New York."

Called Tea Leaf Salad, the dish is characteristic of Burmese cooking, with its blend of pickled tea leaves, dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, and crunchy fried garlic. "It's crunchy and spicy, with Pacific Rim-style Asian flavors."

You won't find the dish on the menu at Pacific East — "Susan is quite shy about putting Burmese food on the menu," says Anderson — but it's usually available for those willing to try something new and delicious.

Pockets of Joy

Through his culinary adventure company NEO Food Tours, Todd Gauman introduces people to the sort of neighborhood gems we so often overlook. One of his personal favorite parts of Cleveland happens to be a particular stretch of Lorain Avenue on the near West Side.

"That area is such an interesting cultural hodgepodge of ethnicities," he explains. "We've lost so many cultural pockets in this city. I love that the West Side still has so many authentic ethnic places."

It was there that Gauman stumbled upon Assad's Bakery while he was on a pita run for his seasonal employer, Judy's Oasis on West 25th.

He hasn't stopped talking up the joint since.

"This is one of those great Cleveland places," he says. "You walk in the back and these 80-year-old Middle Eastern women are making spinach and feta pies by hand. There is this huge contraption that makes fresh pitas. It was probably made centuries ago for this one task."

Come lunchtime, Gauman skips the spinach pie and digs into meatier fare. "The beef shawarma just rocks," he says. Shaved off a vertical spit, the meat is packed into a fresh-baked pita with shaved red onion, pickles, and garlic sauce.

"My godparents are Syrian, so I've been eating Middle Eastern food from a very young age," he adds as a point of reference.

Perfect Timing

Food writer Laura Taxel never knows when she'll be digging into her all-time favorite dish. That's because that dish — mussels in spicy garlic sauce at Sun Luck Garden in Cleveland Heights — isn't on the menu. Chef and owner Annie Chiu only makes it when she can get great seafood and has the time to create the labor-intensive sauce.

"It's like a special club," Taxel says of the fortunate group that swoons over the dish. "Annie literally will personally call you when she's making them. When you get the call, you rearrange your weekend plans and go."

Taxel and her family have been eating Chiu's food since her oldest son was a baby. He's 33 now. Another son's first job was bussing tables and washing dishes at the restaurant. "Our lives have become enmeshed," she says.

Though she never knows when the next plate of spicy mussels will grace her gullet, Taxel says the amount of time that passes between platters always seems perfect.

"It's just enough time that you always look forward to it — but not so long that you have to wait for a special occasion."

It Takes Guts

Michael Herschman is not an extreme eater. He does not seek out bizarre foods just to say he's tried them. As a chef and connoisseur, his only goal is to track down and devour delicious grub. We say that only because his most adored dish in all of Cleveland sounds more like a dare than a dinner.

"I love the crispy pork intestines at Wonton Gourmet," he says with a completely straight face. "It's somewhere between braised pork belly, chitlins, and crispy-fried artery blockers."

According to Herschman's blow-by-blow, the intestines are cut into strips and fried until they are "nice and crispy outside, and fatty, melty on the flipside." They are paired with julienned radish and carrot slaw to cut the richness. He washes it all down with pots of the house chai.

Herschman, chef at Lopez on Lee, has been a fan of Wonton Gourmet since it opened in Asiatown about three years back. He goes so far as to call it the best Chinese food in town — an honor that leaves significant competition scrambling for second place.

"Where else can you point to a picture on the wall to order and watch Chinese game shows on TV?"

Suburban Slabs

Here's something you don't know about restaurateur Alan Glazen: The man behind ABC and XYZ taverns once was mayor of Bentleyville, a pint-sized village just south of Chagrin Falls. That was 30-odd years ago, and in all that time, Glazen has never found a better platter of ribs than those at Rick's Café.

Coincidentally, that's about as long as Rick's has been around. A Chagrin Falls fixture for more than three decades, the cozy saloon packs in happy customers like so many sardines. And every one of them, it seems, agrees with Glazen about the ribs.

"I think they are the best ribs in the city," he says. "I don't like my ribs falling off the bone. I want meat that sticks to the ribs and crunches when you bite into them. I want crispy ribs."

To Glazen, a restaurant is much more than merely a collection of its dishes.

"I look at Rick's the same way I look at ABC and XYZ. If you like the people, if you like the environment, that's what's it's all about. You know you're going to have a great conversation when you go to Rick's."

Flesh for Fantasy

On her daily radio program Around Noon, WCPN host Dee Perry chats up the movers and shakers of the arts and entertainment world. But something truly special happens whenever the topic turns to food. This lady, as any listener can tell, is an unapologetic foodie.

For proof of that, just listen to Perry describe her all-time favorite dish: the 40-clove heirloom-garlic-roasted chicken in brioche from Greenhouse Tavern.

"You cut into the brioche and it reveals this chicken, falling-off-the-bone tender. And then this aroma of garlic rises to your nose. You take a bite and get the sweet, salty bread, incredibly moist-tasting chicken, and this buttery broth. It is the best thing I have ever tasted. I find myself fantasizing about it."

Perry knows that good food only becomes great food when it's shared with somebody special.

"The best dishes are usually not something you squirreled away to eat by yourself," she says. "They are something you share with family or friends who share a love of good food."

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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