Over 30,000 Asians call Cuyahoga County home, making them one of the larger ethnic populations. Many reside in AsiaTown, an area just east of downtown that is loosely bordered by East 30th and 40th Streets, and St. Clair and Payne Avenues. This vibrant, diverse neighborhood is teeming with Asian-owned shops, restaurants, and markets. A visit here is a must for ethnic-food fans, adventurous home cooks, and lovers of all things exotic.
The Chinese are Cleveland’s oldest Asian immigrant group, dating all the way back to the 1860s, but the area that used to be called Chinatown is now referred to as AsiaTown to better reflect the residents that call the area home. Recent decades have welcomed arrivals from Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand, and immigrants from each of these countries have established restaurants and markets in this area.
Pho has become an absolute food craze all over the country — and for good reason. This Vietnamese meal in a bowl features noodles, beef, broth, and veggies in a plentiful, affordable, and delicious package. Two of Cleveland’s best versions can be found in AsiaTown. Many locals prefer to hit Superior Pho (3030 Superior Ave., 216/781-7462) for their bowl despite the spare, modest setting. For those who prefer a little more flash, there is #1 Pho (3120 Superior Ave., 216/781-1176), an attractive Vietnamese restaurant less than a block away. Both menus travel well beyond noodle soup.
Dim sum is a popular weekend brunch in Cleveland, and not just for Asians — the practice of selecting food as it rolls by on carts is pretty much a universal pleasure. Some Chinese restaurants are designed specifically with dim sum in mind, with cavernous dining rooms capable of handling hundreds of guests at once. Two local dim sum institutions are Bo Loong (3922 St. Clair Ave., 216/391-3113) and Li Wah (2999 Payne Ave., Asia Plaza, 216/696-6556, http://liwahrestaurant.com ). Both have wonderful selections, efficient service, and reasonable prices. Try the barbecue pork buns, turnip cakes, shrimp dumplings, crisp-skinned duck, and, if you’re brave, chicken feet.
One of the best Asian restaurants in all of Northeast Ohio is Siam Café (3951 St. Clair Ave., 216/361-2323), a large, relatively attractive space. The sprawling menu covers traditional and creative Chinese dishes (plus some Thai and Vietnamese), but this restaurant excels at seafood. Live lobster, crab, eel, and shrimp are pulled from tanks and cooked up in dishes like shrimp in black bean sauce, lobster in garlic sauce, and salt-baked shrimp.
There are few greater culinary joys than grilling up garlicky beef bulgogi at a Korean restaurant such as Seoul Hot Pot (3709 Payne Ave., 216/881-1221) — it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but is cute and comfy inside. This restaurant also has a few grill tables (ask for one when booking a reservation) that turn a bulgogi meal into a festive event.
Korea House (3700 Superior Ave., 216/431-0462) is more spacious and modern, but bulgogi is cooked on a tabletop hot plate. Both restaurants put out respectable arrays of banchan, those pungent condiments such as kimchi that accompany every meal.
AsiaTown is blessed with great ethnic markets that transform an everyday shopping trip into a culinary expedition. These bustling groceries stock exotic live seafood items like frogs and eels, hard-to-find herbs and spices, and even dirt-cheap cookware. One of Cleveland’s oldest and best is Tink Holl (1735 E. 36th St., 216/881-6996), a large, bright space crammed with interesting stuff. For a treat, purchase half a roasted duck.
Hacked into pieces, this bird blows away the Colonel’s. One of the newest additions to the area is Koko Bakery (3710 Payne Ave., 216/881-7600), a contemporary shop that sells an amazing selection of Asian baked goods. Come here for sweet and savory buns, Chinese cakes, egg custards, and bubble tea.