Northeast Ohio is the Rust Belt’s buckle. There is no vista quite like Cleveland’s gloriously infernal Industrial Valley, where smoke-belching steel and chemical plants line the Cuyahoga River, blot the sun and light up the night. The region’s heritage is clear in its drinking and dining — in boisterous Eastern European taverns, in African-American-owned restaurants in Cleveland and in cuisines brought by refugees to Akron. To really get to know a place where tourism is often limited to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, follow your taste buds.
Hot food in Cleveland
The James Beard award-winning Sokolowski’s University Inn, opened in 1923, is a fever pitch of Polish kitsch set to Muzak. It’s in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, where they filmed “A Christmas Story” and the Russian-American wedding scene in “The Deer Hunter.” “Get the [expletive] out of my restaurant,” said Bernie Sokolowski, one of three sibling/owners, after I arrived for our scheduled interview. I maintained eye contact and broke the silence by sucking up the dregs of a vodka cranberry poured to look like a Polish flag, until he said he was only kidding, then interrogated me about this newspaper’s editorial alignment. One must try a cabbage roll, made with pork, veal and beef. “I challenge anybody to roll cabbage rolls better than me,” said Bernie. “I rolled 580 in the last half-hour” (sokolowskis.com; 1-216-771-9236).
At the Davis Bakery in suburban Woodmere (davisbakery.net; 1-216-292-3060), the coconut bars — blocks of almond-scented white or chocolate cake dipped in house-made chocolate syrup and rolled in shredded coconut — are among the best things I’ve ever eaten. Simplicity begets sublimity. Open since 1939, it’s one of the last kosher bakeries in northeast Ohio, now under second-generation owner Joel Davis. “He wouldn’t say this, but his will has been the driving force,” said Stu, his son and designated successor. The products, including rye bread made with a 78-year-old sourdough, also are sold at the much loved Heinen’s Grocery Store in downtown Cleveland (heinens.com; 1-216-302-3020).
Cassata cake — three layers of Italian sponge soaked in rum syrup with vanilla custard and fresh strawberries — is the hallmark of Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. Presti’s Bakery makes its own daily and has existed in one form or another since 1903. Matriarch sisters Sheila and Claudia oversee the operation (prestisbakery.com; 1-216-421-3060).
Eric Rogers ran a kitchen line at age 13, and remembers chores like snapping beans or cleaning collards as a family affair. At his Fix Bistro in Cleveland Heights (thefixbistro.com; 1-216-383-8130), get the buttermilk fried chicken with herb-cream sauce, smoked Gouda mashed potatoes and collards. The desserts come from the Sweet Fix Bakery down the street (1-216-371-9866).
Ideally, the hot dog is the closest thing this country has to the immaculate brevity of a taco: One, two, three, four bites, you’re done. Cleveland’s iconic Polish Boy — kielbasa on a bun, covered with fries, barbecue sauce and coleslaw — is simply a bridge too far. Old Fashion Hot Dogs is known for chili dogs, seasoned Greek-style with cinnamon and nutmeg. It opened in 1928 and has been owned for 30 years by the Sorma brothers, who ate there as kids. Tom Sorma greeted each customer by name. A regular said of the late-night crowd: “When people come to eat, it’s like a watering hole. Like a lion next to a deer.” He then talked with Tom about breaking up fights and seeing guns drawn there in the ’70s (1-216-631-4460).
Ohio City is Cleveland’s “it” neighborhood. Visit the West Side Market (westsidemarket.org; 1-216-664-3387) and grab superior dry goods like heirloom beans at Urban Herbs, or pack a picnic of wheatberry salad and yogurt-cultured cheese from Annemarie’s Dairy. For dessert, check out Campbell’s Sweets Factory for buckeye candies (the ones dunked in dark chocolate are appealingly less sugar-forward) or their Ohio-grown popcorn. The caramel/cheese “dichotomy” mix is the best (campbellssweets.com; 1-216-965-0451).
Karen Small is the godmother of the Cleveland farm-to-table scene, using lessons learned from her Italian immigrant grandparents and the decade she spent raising sheep and cows and canning for the winter on a back-to-the-land homestead. The Flying Fig in Ohio City opened in 1999. No-nonsense and candid, Small says she isn’t in the business of gastronomically “challenging” her customers. On a late October menu: crispy flatbread with homemade lamb sausage, roasted hot peppers, cheese and tomato sauce and Chicken Paillard with whipped ricotta, poached pears, prosciutto and fennel. The wine cellar is stocked, the bar full (theflyingfig.com; 1-216-241-4243).
Sauerkraut balls in Akron
One of the great Midwestern hors d’oeuvres is a mix of cream cheese, sausage and sauerkraut, breaded and deep-fried. Sauerkraut balls are native to Akron, and the big ones at Larry’s Main Entrance are made with the cook’s mother’s recipe. I opened one to get a better camera angle and commented that the insides aren’t as pretty as the outsides. “Few things in life are,” replied Alan Perella, who has owned and operated the bar with his wife, Charlotte, since 1992. It’s the quintessential Rust Belt neighborhood bar: They serve prime rib on Thursday nights (1-330-864-8162).
When in Akron, go to a Swensons Drive-In for a Galley Boy, a double cheeseburger slathered with mayonnaise-based white and barbecue sauce on a locally baked bun, speared by a toothpick and topped with an olive. The experience of eating here is either vaguely psychedelic or of postmodern hyper-realism, where violently chipper servers, dressed in navy blue sweaters and white tennis shoes, shuffle-run back and forth between cars and kitchen. Jokes aside, the shakes are great (swensonsdriveins.com).
Nearby Barberton was founded in 1891 and settled by waves of European immigrants who came for factory jobs. That legacy manifests itself in a style of fried chicken only found here — fried in lard, the breading secret but intensely crunchy. It comes with “hot sauce,” some combination of rice, peppers and paprika. I wasn’t sure whether to eat the sauce alone or with the chicken — regulars do both. Four outfits exist; the oldest is Belgrade Gardens, open since 1933 (belgradegardenschicken.com; 1-330-745-0113).
Suresh Suba grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal. Akron welcomes refugees, and Suba founded the Nepali Kitchen here in 2016. He recommends the thukpa, a chicken noodle soup with tomatoes, cilantro and sesame. I was delighted to see something called “Nepali spaghetti” on the menu, an example of that centuries-long practice of adapting immigrant cuisines to American tastes. Noodles come beneath a creamy tomato sauce, seasoned with onions, garlic, ginger and cumin. It’s delicious. It’s also heartwarming (nepalikitchen.weebly.com; 1-330-631-1112).
Aaron Gettinger (adgettinger.com) is a freelance writer in Chicago.