The Velvet Tango Room

vtrThe Velvet Tango Room (or VTR) was just named one of the ‘Best 150 bars in America‘ (hint: it’s no. 90) – and for good reason. I love the VTR. Proprietor Paulius Nasvytis is just coolness personified, and the bartenders there really know how to shake a cocktail. The VTR opened in 1996 in a building that was once a speakeasy. It is located on Columbus Road on Duck Island, just a block or two from the West Side Market and the RTA station in Ohio City.

There are more than 80 cocktails on the menu. They serve classics like Manhattans, the Flip, Tom Collins, Sazerac, the Highball, the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Old Fashioned, and sours like the Pisco Sour and the Amaretto di SaronnaIMAG1751 as well as their own house creations like the India Lime Fizz (which Michael Symon talked about on the Food Channel’s The Best Thing I Ever Drank), the Lady in White, the Apricot Lady, the Cleveland Rose, and the Rust Belt. There is a drink to match every taste and mood. Every cocktail is completely fresh and made from scratch. Each cocktail uses the finest ingredients, the juice is squeezed as they make your drink, and mixers like bitters are made in-house. The ice cubes are made in a special 100_0395machine to be 1.25″ square and are frozen at -30 degrees, so that they stay cold longer and dilute the cocktail less. The cherries are imported from Italy. Once you taste them you will never eat maraschino cherries again. They’re delicious!

My favorites include the Lady in Red (vodka blended with the Tango Room’s own red wine reduction and adorned with marinated grapes), the India Lime Fizz (a rich, creamy, and powerful cocktail that combines gin, rum, flora India limes, vanilla, and a whole egg), the Moscow Mule (in the metal cup of course), and the Pisco muleSour.

Even if you are a hater of eggnog, their version will change your mind. It is the third drink photo here. It is so dense it casts a shadow on the cocktail napkin. Paulius whips it up during the holidays with fresh cream and eggs, brandy and dark rum. I had it during the holidays, when Paulius makes gallons of it and runs out, but they are happy to make it for you any time.

If IMAG1753you can’t decide they offer cocktail flights. As the menu explains, the “flights are groupings of three signature cocktails designed to create a harmonious progression of flavor experiences. Each cocktail’s flavor profile and finish, gently introduces and compliments the next one in the series. The opening cocktail is full-sized, followed by a slightly smaller tasting size cocktail before the final coup-de-grace, another full-size cocktail.” It’s a great way to try several at once. I’ve had the White, Light and Spicy (Lady in White, Rangpur Gimlet, and Dark ‘n’ Stormy) and the Fruits, Herbs and Spices (Lady in Red, Lady in White, and Bourbon Daisy).

The joint is classy 1929284_89667701349_7751357_nfrom start to finish, but it isn’t pretentious. There is a dress code (no shorts, t-shirts, or anything disreputable), but as you can see in the photo to the right they don’t ban jeans. The customers are friendly and not at all pretentious.

The ceiling has bullet holes from its speakeasy days. The bar and back bar are made of refinished mahogany. There is a sitting room with a grand piano where live jazz musicians play. The back room is tucked away in a hallway and to get to it you have to walk through a mirrored door in the coatroom. lastwordYou need reservations for the back room, and there is a two drink minimum. The backroom has buttery soft leather chairs and sofas and a fireplace for the winter months and a great patio for the summer months. There is another baby grand piano in the back room for special events. You can check out the photos on their website.

The food is limited, but high quality. You can order savories like Warm Olives and Almonds, Speck on Rye (which I highly recommend), an Artisanal Cheese board, Swine and Cheese (local goat cheese with Courvoisier fig sauce IMAG1598and a mound of prosciutto and crackers), or a Charcuterie plate or sweets like gelato, chocolate truffles, chocolate fondue, and Bananas Foster. We were lucky enough to be treated by Paulius to his Crepe Suzette, flambeed table side. It was a treat for the eyes and the taste buds.

There is no other place in Cleveland serving fine cocktails like the VTR. They serve cocktails and only cocktails, so check out the menu before you go to make sure you like what they are selling. There is no beer, shots or wine served here. The drinks are pricey ($18 for one drink), but they are only $10 during Happy Hour. The Happy Hour at the VTR runs from 4:30-7 pm on weeknights (my friends usually meet there on Fridays). There are no reservations in the front. It’s first come, first served. There are sometimes free nibbles put out during happy hour, but don’t count on them. As one Yelper said, “It doesn’t have to be a “special occasion” for a stop at VTR. VTR is its own occasion and can make any day better.”collage-2015-05-01

Contact info:

The Velvet Tango Room
2095 Columbus Road
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 241-8869

Slyman’s Restaurant

IMAG1875Is there anything more quintessentially Cleveland than Slyman’s? Would you believe that I (a native Clevelander) had never been here until a couple months ago? Whenever people talk about “musts” in Cleveland a corned beef sandwich at Slyman’s is always on the list. The sandwiches are monstrous. There is a reason they offer a side of bread on the menu – to make another sandwich with whatever falls off the monster you are currently eating. The carry out line is usually longer than the IMAG1869dining in line, with downtown workers grabbing their food to go eat at their desks. The place is tiny and cramped, but service is exceptionally quick. They have their service down to a science – a very efficient science.

This place is a family-run institution. They celebrated 50 years in 2013. Joe and Mae Slyman opened the restaurant in 1963, and now their sons are working behind the counter, slicing the meat and grilling the sandwiches. Slyman’s is located on St. Clair Avenue at E. 31st Street. You can park along St. Clair and E. 31st, but there is also a parking lot across the street off E. 31st.

One reason I had never managed to make it here before are the limited hours and the talk of long lines. They are only IMAG1870open during the week until 2:30 and on Saturdays until 1:00. They aren’t open on Sundays. I finally made it here for the first time on the Saturday afternoon after Christmas. I figure it would not be as crowded as it normally is, and I was right. There was still a line, but it moved quickly. They were able to seat our table of 3 quickly in the small dining room to the right of the door. Once we ordered our food, service was even quicker. I don’t think more than 5 minutes passed before our food was brought to the table.

Since Slyman’s is known for their corned beef, I had to get a corned beef sandwich on my first outing. I ordered a Reuben. IMAG1872The Slyman’s Reuben is not like any other Reuben I have ever had. It is 99% corned beef with just a bit of sauerkraut and one slice of Swiss cheese on the top and bottom. That said, it was pretty damn delicious. The corned beef is not too salty and is shaved very thin and piled high. If you are not a fan of sauerkraut never fear. It doesn’t overwhelm, and I can’t see it in the sandwich. I think there might be a thin layer at the bottom with the cheese. The rye bread is buttery and crisp from the grill. They don’t put condiments on the sandwich. The ketchup, mustard, horseradish, hot sauce and Thousand Island dressing are on the table, which allows you to doctor it up just how you like it.

I ordered a Sprite and a side of potato salad to go with it. The Sprite came in a can along with a small glass of ice. Order two right off the bat if IMAG1873you are particularly thirsty that day. And since corned beef tends to be somewhat salty you might need it. The potato salad was out of this world. It was creamy and had small shavings of carrot and onion. It was not overwhelmingly mustardy if you like that kind of thing. If you do, just add a splash from the table condiments. It was just a good, solid potato salad that I would happily order again.

My dining companions ordered the french fries, and they were really good for IMAG1874food service fries. The serving size was plentiful, and the crinkle cut fries were crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside.

On my second visit I was craving a Tuna Melt. I had heard good things about the tuna melt, and the tips did not steer me wrong. This was a delicious tuna melt. I ordered it on the requisite rye bread with Swiss cheese. I wanted to have soup, but the choice that day was beef barley, which isn’t necessarily the best accompaniment. Potato salad it is! The tuna melt and potato salad were delivered within one minute of ordering (I kid you not). I also can’t believe IMAG2247I ate the whole thing! I didn’t eat for the rest of the day.

You can also order roast beef, pastrami, turkey, ham, egg salad, salami, BBQ beef, a hamburger or cheeseburger, hot dog, patty melt, grilled cheese and several salads. If you really want a challenge, their hot turkey (below), hot roast beef or hot BBQ sandwiches are served closed face along with home fries or french fries and come smothered in gravy.

If you come here and know you won’t be able to finish your sandwich, you might want to bring some kind of container with you. They bring you parchment paper to wrap up your sandwich, but it doesn’t work real well if you have a wet item like potato salad, cole slaw or tuna fish.

Breakfast is served from 6 am to 11 am on the weekdays. I have a friend from high school who raves about their corned beef hash. I’m tempted, but let’s be honest – I am likely to never make it here for breakfast. If you do be sure to order the corned beef!IMAG2975

There is a reason they bring your food so quickly. With space at such a premium you are not encouraged to linger. Order, eat, and get out to make room for the next person. Don’t take it personally. People are clamoring to get in here.

They just opened a Slyman’s Tavern on Rockside Road in Independence, and it seats 150. It is open every day from 11 am to midnight. Maybe it will decrease the crowds downtown, but I doubt it. If anything it will satisfy all the cravings of all business folks in Independence.

Contact info:

Slyman’s Restaurant
3106 St. Clair Avenue NE
Cleveland, OH 44114
(216) 621-3760

Carrie Cerino’s Ristorante and Party Center in North Royalton


Photo by Tom Noe of Exploring Food My Way
Photo by Tom Noe of Exploring Food My Way

Carrie Cerino’s is an institution on the southwest side of town in North Royalton. The place is huge, and the decor is “old school.” People come here for the food and not necessarily for the ambiance. The dining room we ate in was cozy, but rather dated. They also offer party rooms for weddings, reunions and other larger celebrations.

Carrie Cerino opened a bakery in Maple Heights in 1945 with $3,000 bank loan. She branched into catering in 1955 and bought the location where the restaurant is in 1962. They kept adding extensions to the property, 600_21693669and it truly is a family business. Four generations work at Cerino restaurants, and her grandson Eddie Cerino has branched out to open pizzerias in Parma and Lakewood. I regret I never had the chance to try Dominic Cerino III’s cooking and the Blue Egg Ravioli. Dominic is missed by many foodies, may he rest in peace. As for the Blue Egg Ravioli, you had to call and order it ahead of time, but they stopped serving it several years ago.

This is not a hip place, but it also does not contend to be. It’s all about the food. The food and menu is very traditional: bread, soup or salad, and pasta come with every meal. The pasta is homemade and delicious.

The bread came out warm, and the butter was nice and soft. There is nothing I hate more than cold, rock-hard butter. saladThere were two choices of bread – one plain and one with an herb mix and sun-dried tomatoes. Each dish comes with your choice of a soup or salad.

I ordered the soup as my side and then ordered a side salad for an additional $1.95. The salad was pretty decent and was topped with some cucumbers, chickpeas, tomatoes, shredded cheese and a couple small slices of salami. The dressing was a bright Italian.

I am a huge fanweddingsoup of Italian wedding soup, so my choice was easy. The Italian wedding soup which was very flavorful and an interesting twist to a traditional recipe. There was one big meatball in the middle and some fresh spinach leaves and little bits of chicken throughout the broth. It was a very good soup.

One of my fellow diners ordered the French Onion Soup and was extremely pleased with it. I love a good French onion soup, and this one had scads of cheese, which is a bonus. I’ll be sure to order it myself some time.IMG_0945

I had heard great things about their chicken parmesan and white sauce, so my choice was an easy one. The chicken parmesan is a sauteed boneless, skinless breast of chicken finished in the oven with sliced tomato, prosciuttini and mozzarella. The chicken was well-seasoned and moist. It came with housemade spaghetti with a choice of sauce. I of course ordered the white sauce because it is fairly unique. I have no idea what is in the white sauce, but it wasn’t overpowering at all. It was, in fact, quite subtle and not at all cheesy or too creamy. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, and the sauce was delicious. It was a really nice accompaniment to the chicken.

Most of my fellow diners ordered some version of the chicken parm. One friend ordered the Parmesan Crusted Tilapia and was extremely pleased with it. It was tender, flaky and perfectly broiled.chickenparm_whitesauce

The desserts there were nothing but amazing. The two standouts were the chocolate bomb and the tiramisu, but the cassata cake was also really well executed.

There is a reason Carrie Cerino’s has such a large location – it draws the crowds because they consistently turn out great food at a reasonable price.

They are open for lunch Tuesday – Friday from 11:30 am to 3:00 pm and dinner Tuesday – Thursday from 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Friday and Saturday they are open from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm, and on Sunday from 1:00 pm to 6:00 pm. They are also open on Mondays in December.

Here are some other photos from our delicious meal:

Eggplant Parmesan and side of spaghetti
Eggplant Parmesan and side of spaghetti
Eggplant Parmesan and side of risotto
Eggplant Parmesan and side of risotto
Chicken Parmesan with spaghetti
Chicken Parmesan with spaghetti
Not sure - this could be chicken or veal.
I believe this is the Veal Parmesan.
Parmesan Crusted Tilapia
Parmesan Crusted Tilapia
Tuscan Chicken and Risotto
Tuscan Chicken and Risotto
Cassata cake
Cassata cake
Chocolate Bomb
Chocolate Bomb
Tiramisu
Tiramisu

Contact info:

Carrie Cerino’s Ristorante & Party Center
8922 Ridge Road
North Royalton, OH 44133
(440) 237-3434

Hansa Import Haus

IMG_20120505_135504Hansa Import Haus has been in the greater Cleveland area, providing Germans and German food lovers with German food, wine and beer, for the past 51 years. It is located on Lorain Avenue, one block down from the West Side Market (across from Farkas Bakery and Touch Supper Club) and caddy-corner from St. Ignatius. Present day owner Boris Music, native of Slovenia, bought the store in 1980. He has been busy adding on a brewery and restaurant this summer, which I really hope is successful. I want to focus on the store for this particular post. I will review the restaurant later when it opens.

I have been shopping at Hansa Haus for the last thirteen years. It is my go-to place for German IMG_20120505_134556cold cuts, bread, cheese, chocolate, Paniermehl (bread crumbs for schnitzel), boil-in-bag dumplings and Knödel, jams, vinegars, coffee, and beer.

They stock beers from Germany, Austria and Belgium, as single bottles, six packs, cases or pony kegs. Some beers even come as gift packs with their own glasses. Whenever I have a party I have to buy a pony keg or two of my favorite German beers. The keg holds 5 liters of beer, and it is always a huge hit. My go-to keg is Reissdorf Kölsch, but they carry several different kinds of beers in the pony keg.

IMG_20120505_134550The chocolate supply for holidays like Easter and Christmas can’t be beat. I have been buying chocolate bunnies, Santas and Advent calendars here for my nieces (and myself). I highly recommend stopping there about a month before Christmas to stock up on the liquor-filled chocolates. I bring the Irish whiskey-filled or Grand Marnier-filled chocolates as hostess gifts over the holidays. My friend Susanne loves the Edele Tropfen in Nuss, which features fruit brandies or liquors in a crystallized sugar crust and hazelnut clusters covered in dark, milk or white chocolate.

The refrigerated cases carry lots of different cold cuts, sausages, bratwursts, liverwursts, pates, cheeses, butters, Quark (a cross between creme fraiche IMG_20120505_134656and yogurt that is used in German cheesecakes and other recipes), herring, soda, juice, etc. For a real German treat, buy some Sauerrahm Butter (a butter made with sour cream), spread it on a slice of rye, Bauernschnitten (my personal favorite) or whole grain German bread, and put a thin layer of Gelbwurst, Jagdwurst, Krakauer, ham, liverwurst or Teewurst, Speck or Lachsschinken and some Emmentaler, Swiss or smoked Gouda. Mmmm, Lachsschinken… it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. It is the center cut of a boneless loin of pork, rolled in a thin layer of fat to assure tenderness and moisture, cured and smoked. Tastes amazingly similar to smoked salmon (lox or Lachs).

The Maggi Herb Butter is really good on boiled potatoes, corn on the cob and anything else that calls for a flavorful herbed butter.

IMG_20120505_134720The grocery aisles carry all kinds of German mustards (from the sweet to the extra-spicy (Scharf)) as well as canned herring, sardines, noodles, pickled vegetables, sauerkrauts (I highly recommend the Mildessa Weinkraut!) and red cabbage kraut (Rotkohl), fruit juices (cherry and banana juices mixed together are AWESOME), jams and jellies, coffee, cookies, spices, and packaged Knorr and Maggi instant soups, sauces and noodles.

The coffee choices are also extensive. You can choose from powdered cocoas, instant coffee, whole beans and ground and vacuum-packed coffee. My personal favorite is the Jacobs Krönung coffee in Mild, but the illy, Tchibo and Dallmayr brands are also good choices. If you need an instant coffee for a recipe I would buy one of these before reaching for the Folgers (shudder). German coffee just tastes smoother to me than other coffees. IMG_20120505_134708If you have questions do not be afraid to ask an employee. They know their food and have recommended some very good items to me in the past that I have been unaware of.

And last but certainly not least, the item that I buy the most of here are the chocolates. I love the Ritter Sport and Milka chocolate bars. They come in a wide variety of flavor for every taste. My friend Jarod swears by Milka’s Trauben und Nuss (raisin and nut), while I love Milka’s milk chocolate, dark chocolate (Herb or Bitter) and vanilla pudding varieties. They even have yogurt, hazelnut, marzipan, and others that you may never have even considered. My favorite Ritter Sport is the cornflake one. Milka Tenders are better than any Ho-Ho you’ve ever eaten. Buy several and see which ones you prefer.

Happy Shopping or as the Germans say, “Viel Spass beim Einkaufen“!

Contact info:

Hansa Import Haus
2717 Lorain Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44113
216-281-3177

Malley’s Chocolates & Ice Cream Parlors

IMAG0973Most Clevelanders know about Malley’s Chocolates. Malley’s Chocolates is a Cleveland-based chain of 23 chocolate and candy stores that was founded in 1935. Their chocolate covered treats are the stuff of legends. Chocolate covered strawberries, grapes, raspberries, tortilla chips, bacon, etc. are treats on holidays. The chocolate covered Oreos, pretzels, potato chips (a personal addiction), almonds, etc. are available throughout the year. I am such a hardcore fan of Malley’s chocolate covered strawberries that a few years ago I drove out in a blizzard on Valentine’s IMAG0977Day to buy some and crashed my car on the retaining wall going back up my driveway. That was the most expensive Valentine’s Day ever.

Four of the chocolate and candy stores include ice cream parlors year-round (Bay Village, Lakewood, North Olmsted, and Mentor). The store at Aurora Farms Premium Outlets does not offer seating and only serves ice cream in the summer months. The one in North Olmsted features a slow-moving carousel (see photo to the right), and the flagship store in Lakewood has an Alice in Wonderland theme (see photo to the left). I haven’t been to the Bay or Mentor stores, so I can’t tell you anything about them.IMAG0967

If you go to one of the stores with seating, it is usually “seat yourself.” They greet you with a glass of water and a bowl of pretzels. I taught my nieces to use the pretzels to scoop up vanilla ice cream for a salty and sweet treat. Others love scraping up the leftover hot fudge sauce with the pretzels. Yum. There are over fifty ice cream concoctions to choose from. Whether it’s an ice cream soda, shake or malt, banana split or their trademark Hot Fudge Sundae, Malley’s has a rich, creamy, cold treat for everyone’s101_1243 taste. The ice cream is pretty basic with solid flavor choices. This is not a hipster hangout. There are no organic ingredients, and I don’t know how locally sourced it is (although I’ve heard rumors that the ice creams come from Pierre’s). However, the sundaes are inventive and, best of all, very affordable. We’re talking a couple bucks for a sundae, and the serving sizes are generous. Kid’s sundaes are around $3-4, and more complex ones are $4-6. I don’t know a kid growing up who hasn’t ever had a Puppy Love, Malley Clown or Mickey Malley sundae. They are just tons of fun for kids.

IMAG0969Their most popular sundae is their signature Malley’s Hot Fudge Sundae. It is really good if you add Spanish peanuts to it – sweet and salty together is just a great combination. If you buy a fundraiser chocolate bar from a local school kid or the public library there is usually a buy one get one free coupon on the back for the hot fudge sundaes.

Growing up, a trip to Malley’s in North Olmsted was a huge treat. It later became a great date night location. One’s tastes tend to be formed in childhood, and my two favorites are the Coconut Royale (vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce, coconut shavings and whipped cream) and the Pink Elephant (peppermint stick ice cream, Spanish peanuts, hot fudge, and whipped cream).

A sundae will run you between $3.50 and $5.50. If you are with a bunch of people and are feeling adventurous try the Ultimate Sundae. It comes with (to quote one Yelp reviewer) “10 scoops of ice cream, 4 different toppings, 4 types of nuts, and a crap ton of sprinkles and cherries.”IMAG0665

With its pastel walls, gaudy mirrors, vintage ice cream bowls and paper doilies, Malley’s reflects an old-fashioned ice cream parlor from way back when. The simple charms of Malley’s draw local Clevelanders, young and old, for life. This is the kind of place parents bring their kids and then those kids bring their kids and so on… I for one hope it never changes.

White Oaks in Westlake

White Oaks has been a Westlake institution since the 1920s. It is a very throwback restaurant with a country club vibe. During prohibition, it was a speakeasy catering to the crème de la crème, and it honors that rich history with its decor and food. The interior is split up into a honeycomb of many small rooms covered in dark wood and rich colors with fireplaces spread throughout the restaurant. I felt like I had stepped back in time. In fact, we had. I think we were the youngest table there, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying our meals. White Oaks features old-school fine dining, with entrees such as Beef Wellington, Veal Oscar (which was a special that night) and venison. I learned later that it was my parents’ special occasion restaurant in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up in Olmsted Falls.

I apologize in advance for the darkness of the photos. I didn’t want to use the flash on my phone and disturb the other diners. Plus, there is a sign discouraging the use of cell phones, and I didn’t want to be chastised.

Every table is served house-made cottage cheese and a relish tray featuring carrot and celery sticks, a couple radish slices, and green and black olives. I found this very quirky, but loved the cottage cheese, which is flavored with fresh chives. It was definitely unique. I love cottage cheese (especially Breakstone Cottage Cheese) and could have eaten the scoop of cottage cheese all by myself if given the opportunity.

I started with the Apple Onion Soup Gratinee, which features “slowly simmered Spanish onions and Red Delicious apples in a flavorful broth. Topped with freshly grated Mozzarella and Swiss cheeses golden-browned”. I love French onion soup, and the addition of apples was an inspired choice. This soup was absolutely delicious and piping hot with all kinds of melty cheese. I was in heaven. I wasn’t as enthralled with the bite of escargot, but having had excellent escargot in France I am spoiled. It was good, but not spectacular. My friend, however, enjoyed it very much. Next time I will try the highly recommended Pale Ale White Cheddar Cheese Fondue, but I may just have to order the soup again. It was *that* good!

The salads were good, but not anything that stands out. My friends ordered blue cheese dressing and ended up paying a$1.50 upcharge for it, which I don’t remember the waitress mentioning when they ordered it. They enjoyed the fresh salad dressing with crumbled blue cheese and didn’t mention it when we were settling the bill. Word of warning: they put our four meals all on one bill. Apparently they don’t do separate checks even when asked. We could pay with separate credit cards, but we had to tally the bills up ourselves.

I ordered the Venison au Poivre for my entree. It was not at all gamey and was marinated in a ruby red port with assorted seasonings and juniper berries and topped with a port cranberry game sauce. I requested the twice-baked potato instead of the rice. The venison was perfectly cooked and I loved the sauce. The twice-baked potato was a little drier than I would have liked, but was good. The entree came with haricot verts and julienned carrots.

For dessert I ordered tea and a simple order of fresh strawberries topped with a splash of Grand Marnier and fresh whipped cream. I chose a nice Orange Pekoe from their selection of tea bags. The strawberries were fresh despite not being in season any more. The dessert course was simple, yet perfect.

My friends loved their meals as well, ordering the Beef Wellington, the Veal Oscar and the Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola. The service was attentive but not overbearing, and our water glasses were constantly topped off. If you are looking for a restaurant with old-fashioned flair give White Oaks a try. I hear it is sumptuous in the winter with the fireplaces burning and reflecting off the polished wood.

Contact info:

White Oaks
777 Cahoon Rd
Westlake, OH 44145
(440) 835-3090

Sokolowski’s University Inn

Sokolowski’s is a Cleveland institution. My father used to eat there all the time with his co-workers from Richman Brothers, and I grew up hearing about his lunches at Sokolowski’s, Sterle’s and the Hofbräuhaus. I finally got a chance to check it out for myself about ten years ago and have been a fan ever since. I was craving comfort food this afternoon, so I called some friends and we headed out to Sokolowski’s. We got there at around 11:30 to avoid the lunch rush, and got in line just in time because Lolly the Trolley let off a big group there just behind us.

Established in 1923, Sokolowski’s University Inn is one Cleveland’s oldest family owned and operated restaurants. Specializing in Polish and Eastern European cuisine, this Cleveland institution has been feeding its bratwurst, kielbasa (my dad’s favorite), pierogi, stuffed cabbage, cabbage and noodles, chicken paprikash, etc. to its customers for over 87 years.

Food is served cafeteria-style. There is always a crowd, but don’t worry – being cafeteria style the line moves fast. You line up, grab a tray and silverware and work your way down the line. I couldn’t help but start dancing when I grabbed my tray and heard the polka music. The first stop is salads (as well as beet salad and a delicious cucumber-dill salad) served on ice and saran-wrapped pies and cakes, followed by alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages either from bus tubs or the fountain (and they offer several beers on tap – today they had my favorite, Reissdorfer Kölsch on tap for $5 for a pint, but I went with their ‘house’ brand grape soda). After that you are confronted with the hot foods. Every lunch and dinner is served with a roll, so they have a sign telling you to take one. You have to be quick with your order because they move quickly. Hot food is constantly being brought out from the kitchen behind them. All lunches and dinners come with two sides, and they don’t give you a lot of time to think about it. Some of the available sides include pierogi, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, and cabbage and noodles. You can also order soup and/or sandwiches (which come with a pickle and potato salad). Friday lunch and dinner features lots of fish choices – as well as mac and cheese.

Have a heart for those behind you and try to pay in cash if you can. It keeps the line moving. They have a $10.00 limit for credit cards. They have guys waiting at the cash register to carry your tray and escort you to a table. Normally I ask to sit in the room with the piano player. Tom “Mr. T at the Keys” Ballog plays during Wednesday through Saturday hours. It adds a nice ambiance to the meal. Dad also taught me to unload your tray onto the table when you sit down so they can quickly reuse them, but I don’t know if that is necessary anymore.

My choice today was the fresh bratwurst with a side of pierogi and corn. The woman behind the counter gave me corn and green beans. When I corrected her she slapped some pierogis on a plate for me and told me to tell the cashier (who is one of the owners) that it was a mistake. Well, I didn’t have the heart to do that and paid for the pierogis extra. They’re worth it. But you do need to be vigilant at the counter, because they managed to screw up each of our three orders somehow. In the end I was really pleased I had the corn and green beans (if you are a fan of canned green beans you will be thrilled. Yes, yes, when it comes to green beans I have no taste…), because I walked out of there this time not feeling overloaded with carbs. Sokolowski’s can be quite carb-heavy, as my friend who had the pierogi lunch with potato pancakes and mashed potatoes and gravy can attest. He ended up boxing half of his meal and bringing it home.

Since this is a Cleveland food blog, let me just talk about the pierogi for a second. Sokolowski’s pierogi may be small and only come filled with mashed potatoes and cheese, but they pack a flavorful punch. They are served in a pool of melted butter and sautéd onions. I dripped some of the butter on my t-shirt today and can still smell the onion and butter as I type this. About a year ago I did a taste test, going to Babushka’s Kitchen one night and Sokolowski’s for lunch the next day. I ordered the same thing – stuffed cabbage and pierogi. Babushka’s Kitchen’s pierogi are bigger and there are a lot more choices to choose from, but Sokolowski’s won my heart hands down. Babushka’s definitely gives them a run for their money, but you just can’t beat the flavor of Sokolowski’s pierogi. But for the record, Sokolowski’s stuffed cabbage blows Babushka’s away. It isn’t even a contest in my book. It may not be haute cuisine, but it tastes just like my Ukrainian grandma used to make it.

I had enough room for a bite of the coconut cream cake, which is one of my favorite desserts there (if they don’t have the rice pudding). It looks really heavy, but you wouldn’t believe how light and airy it is. It’s like biting into a cloud of moist cake, whipped cream and coconut. I also had a bite of my friend M.’s carrot cake, and it may have replaced the coconut cream cake in my favorites list. Whatever your dessert favorite, be it rice pudding, cherry, apple or blueberry pie (or whatever other flavor they have), chocolate cream pie, coconut cake, or carrot cake, you won’t go wrong grabbing it at the top of the cafeteria line – even if you have to box it up and bring it home with you, which is what I usually do.

Friday nights I can highly recommend the meatloaf. The slice of meatloaf almost hangs over the plate and has a nice tomato-chipotle glaze. One of the best meatloaves I have ever eaten in a restaurant.IMAG0602

The Innerbelt Bridge project has made it a little more difficult to find it, but the long line at 11:30 shows that it hasn’t killed business. Coming from the east, we got off at the Abbey Avenue exit, took a left on Fairfield Avenue, turned onto W. 11th and pulled into the parking lot on Abbey. Luckily there were signs to Sokolowski’s with arrows that we could follow. Sokolowski’s has directions on its website, but they should only serve as a guideline. If you head to Parallax and South Side you’ll find Sokolowski’s. And I promise it’s well worth the extra aggravation.

I had been debating between Slyman’s and Sokolowski’s today, but Slyman’s sandwiches are $11.00-12.00 and my bratwurst lunch with two sides at Sokolowski’s was $8.00. Sure, I paid extra for the cake, drink and side of pierogi, but I was very happy with my decision to eat at Sokolowski’s. Slyman’s will be there another day. Sokolowski’s is open Monday-Friday 11 am – 3 pm and Friday and Saturday from 5 pm – 9 pm and 4 pm – 9 pm respectively.

Contact info:

Sokolowski’s University Inn
1201 University Rd
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 771-9236

And did I mention that Anthony Bourdain ate here for his show “No Reservations”? The website also features Michael Symon talking about Sokolowski’s pierogi in “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Like I said, it’s an institution…

Hot Sauce Williams

in-memoriam-graphic

Edit: All Hot Sauce Williams locations are now closed.

Photo from the Cleveland Scene

Hot Sauce Williams is a Cleveland institution. I drive past it all the time and had heard so many good things about it that I finally decided I needed to try it. If you love fried food that is slathered in hot sauce, then this is your place. We went to the main restaurant on Carnegie, but they have additional locations on Lee Road and Superior Avenue. The restaurant has a “divey” feel to it, which I always enjoy (I still miss the old Suds Maguire in Olmsted Township). The tables are covered in plastic and the place looks somewhat run-down. Just don’t come here expecting fast or friendly service.  In fact, the major negative about our visit to Hot Sauce Williams was that the service was slower than molasses and was not particularly friendly, but we quickly forgot about that after digging into the food. But if you go in knowing it’s a bit of a dive and that the food makes it worth the trip you’ll be ok. One thing I can say is that you get a massive amount of food for a great price. It just took an hour to get it. If you don’t want to wait that long, order whatever is in the warmers behind the counter.

Hot Sauce Williams’ fried chicken was highly recommended as being amazingly good, so I went there intent on fried chicken. I ordered the 2 piece fried chicken breast dinner and received two massive bone-in chicken breasts. They needed to make it in the back and took their good old sweet time doing so. It came out so hot it melted the styrofoam. I could barely finish one breast and took the rest home. It came with cole slaw and French fries and slices of white or wheat bread and cost a whopping $5.99.

The wing dinner was $5.00 and also came with French fries and coleslaw, white or wheat bread. My friend upgraded and ordered three different sides, which she absolutely raved about – mac and cheese, collard greens and candied yams. True Southern comfort food!

Another friend ordered a full slab rib dinner for $19.50 (it also comes with French fries, cole slaw and white or wheat bread). He let me try a couple bones while I waited for my food and watched everyone eat. They don’t fall off the bone, but they are nicely smoked and slathered in an absolutely delicious sauce. After all, Hot Sauce Williams is known for the BBQ sauce.

They gave our group a mess of French fries for free to compensate for our wait. We got an industrial restaurant aluminum pan brimming full of fries (you can see it at the top of the photo in the center of the table). The fries are actually store-bought Ore-Ida brand fries, but they were good – especially drenched in the hot sauce, which wasn’t all that hot (as in spicy).

We weren’t all that impressed with the desserts though (I was so unimpressed that I didn’t even take photos of it), so unless something really tickles your fancy just keep gorging yourself on the dinners. No one walked out of here hungry. In fact, we all left with lots of leftovers.

Hot Sauce Williams has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Man vs. Food. The menu item that was featured on Man vs. Food was the Polish Boy IMG_20170625_193149sandwich. It is a whopping $3.50. According to Man vs. Food, the Polish Boy is Cleveland’s signature menu item. I must not be a true Clevelander (although I was born in Parma and grew up in Olmsted Falls), because I have never had a Polish Boy. Pierogis? Yes. Kielbasa? Yes. But a Polish Boy? I had never heard of one until a few years ago. The Polish Boy at Hot Sauce Williams is made up of an all beef kielbasa, French fries, cole slaw, bbq pork shoulder, and hot sauce on a bun. I’ll be sure to get one next time.

Contact info:

Hot Sauce Williams
3770 Lee Road
Cleveland, OH 44128
(216) 921-4704

12310 Superior Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44106
(216)249-0710

Bearden’s is back, baby!

Bearden’s in Rocky River is a Cleveland institution. Opened in 1948, Bearden’s is known for its bear logo, steakburgers and shakes. It closed a couple years ago when construction on Lake Road caused business to dry up. It reopened this past October. Most West Siders have a story about Bearden’s. I remember going to Bearden’s with my high school boyfriend on our first date. There was some discussion the night I went as to whether it was the original location. My friend and I remember it being much darker than it is now. I seem to remember wood paneling, and my friend Suzanne insists it was at the end of her grandmother’s street. Maybe there were two locations at one time. Who knows. In any case, the new Bearden’s is much brighter, but the iconic train with its stuffed bear conductor is still circling the dining area. Bearden’s is not fancy dining by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, my fellow diners weren’t that impressed with the fare. If you are used to burgers at B Spot, Greenhouse Tavern or Whitey’s this place may not be for you. However, if you like Steak and Shake you’ll feel right at home. Kids adore it and it is good for a stroll down memory lane, eliciting the old 1950s diner vibe.

When I mentioned on Facebook that I would be dining at Bearden’s several of my friends mentioned the peanutburger, so of course I had to try it. I would have never thought creamy peanut butter spread on a burger would be tasty, but it wasn’t bad. If I were to go there again I would definitely order bacon with the burger. The chocolate milkshake was definitely a nice accompaniment to the peanutburger for this Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup fan. Everyone at our table shared sides of golden fries and thick onion rings. My fries were quite tasty, with just the right amount of salt. The onion rings are fresh and not frozen. One side of fries or onion rings can easily be shared by two or three people.

The Plain Dealer’s Friday! magazine recently reviewed Bearden’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was there the night after we were. I distinctly remember the valentines on the windows too.

I was particularly thrilled to see that they offer birch beer on tap in the self-serve soda fountain. It’s one of my all-time favorite drinks from childhood, and you can’t find it everywhere.

Contact info:

Bearden’s
19985 Lake Road
Rocky River, OH 44116
(440) 331-7850

Balaton at Shaker Square

in-memoriam-graphic

Edit: Closed on December 31, 2021 – Hoping to reopen somewhere else

Balaton is a Hungarian restaurant on Shaker Square. It has been in business since 1964 and is known for its Wiener Schnitzel and Chicken Paprikash. For 000_0008those who are not familiar with Austro-Hungarian cuisine, Wiener Schnitzel is a veal cutlet pounded flat and battered and fried to a golden brown. It is traditionally served with spaetzel (delicate dumplings made of flour, eggs and water) and applesauce.

My German group met there recently and enjoyed a delightful dinner on a Friday 000_0010night. We were a fairly large group and the restaurant was full, but we had no problems with the service. They seated us at an L-shaped table by the window.

000_0017
Wiener Schnitzel with spaetzel

The salad was swimming in dressing, but it was a light European oil and vinegar blend. It was just your typical iceberg lettuce salad, but it was good – as was the bread, which I unfortunately did not take a picture of.

hungarian_platter
Hungarian Platter with spaetzel

I had the Wiener Schnitzel and spaetzel, which was delicious. The first time I was there I ordered the Hungarian platter, which features the schnitzel, chicken paprikash and stuffed cabbage. I enjoyed it too, but the stuffed cabbage was not like my grandmother’s. But then again, her stuffed cabbage was Ukrainian and tough to beat. If you are there for the first time though I highly recommend getting the Hungarian platter to try all three of their specialties.

Everyone there really enjoyed their meals. We ordered just about everything off the menu, from the Hungarian Lecso (a summer stew of

000_0012
Chicken paprikash and mashed potatoes

yellow bell pepper and tomato) to the various combinations of paprikash (veal or chicken) and goulash (beef or pork).

000_0015
Hungarian Lecso

Most of us were too full for dessert, but I can highly recommend the strudel and (my personal favorite here) the Napoleon. I am also a sucker for Palacsinta, which are crepes with apricot, walnut, sweet cottage cheese, or poppy seed fillings, but I haven’t had Balaton’s yet. I remember a delicious Eispalatschicken in Austria, which was a crepe filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce and Grand Marnier that was then lit on fire. I remember it like it was yesterday, but it was twenty years ago. It was that divine. If Balaton were to add that to the menu I would eat here at least once a month.

000_0023
Napoleon
000_0027
Cherry strudel

Contact info:

Balaton Restaurant
13133 Shaker Square
Cleveland, Ohio 44120
216-921-9691