Han Chinese Kabob & Grill doesn't look at all like other Chinese restaurants in Cleveland's Asiatown neighborhood. It's bright, modern and attractive. There are no hanging lanterns, calligraphy scrolls or rice paper umbrellas. In place of a murky fish tank with questionable sea life there is an open kitchen, unheard of for the genre.
But then again, Han wasn't built for the same-old audience, says owner Chaoyi Wang. It's geared toward a younger generation of Asian-born diners, many of whom pine for an authentic taste of home without all the shtick.
"Students don't want to eat in their parents' restaurant," Wang says. "We need to change people's mind about Chinese food and Chinese restaurants."
Further distinguishing Han from its comrades is the menu, culled from Northern regions as opposed to Southern and Central mainstays like Cantonese, Hunan and Szechuan. It is food that Owen Chen, Chaoyi's husband, grew accustomed to eating while living near Beijing and couldn't find here in Cleveland. That inspired — compelled, really — him to open this restaurant.
Lamb kabobs, a Beijing street-food staple, are served here and nowhere else. What's more, they're cooked over a charcoal fire, which preserves the authenticity of the food. Served by the half dozen, the lamb skewers ($12.95) are aggressively seasoned with cumin, red pepper flakes and a touch of sesame. They are hot off the grill, juicy as hell and spicy as a burning ember. It's a shame Han doesn't sell beer.
"We put 'kabob' in the name because we wanted to make sure people knew we sold skewers — because we're the only ones to do it," notes Wang.
It took me awhile to notice that all of Han's appetizers — of which I've sampled a half dozen — are cold dishes. In China, explains Wang, appetizer translates literally to "cold dishes." While cold, they are by no means boring or bland, with an appealing interplay of cool and crisp, sweet and spicy. Nondescript names like "Shredded Potato Salad" ($3.95) and "Shredded Pork and Cucumber" ($4.95) beget beautifully composed dishes that are light, refreshing and perfect for summer. In the latter, thin ribbons of cucumber are tossed with a smattering of lean pork slivers in a heady dressing of garlic, sesame and chili.
The unfortunately named "Chef's Special Noodle Skin" ($9.85) reveals a stunning and colorful platter with small bundles of finely shredded cuke, carrot, omelet and wood ear mushrooms. In the center of the plate is a tangle of housemade cellophane noodles with a sesame-wasabi dressing. There is a great starter of cold poached chicken ($5.95) — hacked into small bits but still on the bone — drenched in a slick red chili sauce with ginger, garlic, soy and sesame.
Visit Han at 8 or 9 p.m. and you'll likely see a dining room crowded with young diners loading up their tables with crispy whole fried fish ($19.95), spicy shrimp ($15.95) and plenty of kabobs. Whole butterfish are fried and topped either with a sweet and sour sauce or spicy bean sauce. The delicate meat comes cleanly off the bones, though it does require a bit of finesse. Those shrimp — butterflied in their shell, dusted in starch, deep fried and eaten shell, tail and all — are crispy, meaty and blazingly spicy. Counter the kick with a bowl of steamed white rice.
In addition to the lamb kabobs, there are beef, chicken, squid and even steamed bun versions. They all come straight off the grill with zero accompaniments; it's all about the meat, fire and seasoning. A special's board — usually written in Chinese — might feature a limited-time-only kabob or a fish stew or deep-fried pork intestines. Just ask your server to translate.
Those ever-popular stir-fried string beans are available two ways here. There's the typical spicy version ($8.95) and a non-spicy version ($8.95) that includes chopped pickled vegetables and dried shrimp, which impart a deep umami flavor. Even the dishes containing meat go easy on the meat, like the famous Dan Dan noodles ($6.85), here called "Noodle with Grown Pork," making it less than obvious to spot. Boiled noodles are tossed with pickled Chinese greens, ground (not grown) pork and plenty of Szechuan peppercorn oil.
Service here is different from other neighborhood joints too, with young, efficient and attentive waiters eager to serve (albeit catered to a non-English speaking clientele).
The formula is bearing fruit, says Wang, who explains that they timed the early summer opening to coincide with local universities' summer break. "It was supposed to be a slow season to start," she says. But thanks to social media, it's been anything but. "Chinese students are driving up from Kent and other places to try it."
Fortunately, our commute is much shorter.
Han Chinese Kabob & Grill
3710 Payne Ave., 216-769-8745, facebook.com/hanchinesekabob.