SASA on Shaker Square

IMG_20121105_211437SASA is one of my favorite restaurants on Shaker Square. Scott and Brenda Kim’s restaurant is the first izakaya — the Japanese version of a tapas bar — in Cleveland. The small, medium and special plates offer something for everyone. My friends and I love to meet here on Monday, when they feature their $5 happy hour, which is normally only at the bar from 5-6:30 pm, all night at the bar as well as the dining room. saketiniThe happy hour menu is fairly extensive, featuring all small plates, half pitchers of draft beer and select sakes, wines, martinis and cocktails for just $5.

I have tried a lot of things on the menu over the years. One thing never changes — I always order the plum saketini. I have gotten many of my friends hooked on this delicious little martini. I have no idea what exactly is in it, but it must include plum wine and some kind of sparkling sake. It is fruity, light and delicious. It is $5 during happy hour and $10 outside happy hour.

IMG_20121105_211707One other must are the SASA fries. The fries here are something really special. They come with two choices of house dipping sauce (I prefer the creamy orange one, but both are delicious), and the fries are covered in shichimi pepper, a spice mix, and sesame-roasted, sun-dried seaweed flakes.

I have enjoyed many of the sushi rolls here, but my favorite by far is the SASA Fire Roll. At $16 it is pricy, but worth every penny. It lives up to its nameIMG_20130311_175632, arriving in a flaming foil package that has been doused in a liquor (sake?). The brief brush with heat gives the teriyaki sauce a smoky quality that seasons the lobster, crab, Chinese broccoli and masago (bright orange fish roe) filling. I simply can’t get enough of the delicious char flavor. It’s such a unique and delicious roll!

IMG_20130311_180032I must mention the cute white bottles and dipping plates for soy sauce that they use with the sushi. The dipping plate is curved to allow the soy sauce to collect in one half, leaving the other half somewhat elevated so you can rest your sushi there if needed. Very elegant!

You really can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, from the dumplings, sliders, harumaki, tempura, and udon soup to the ahi tuna steak, five mushroom chicken or grilled or seafood samplers. The sushi is always fresh, and I have never, ever noticed a fishy smell indicating it is anything but super fresh.

The green tea ice cream is always a special treat if I have room for it. Paired with a chocolate brownie and strawberry puree it is a decadent little treat.

Once you have eaten here you will want to come back again and again. Welcome to the club. Oh yes, there is actually a club. Get a SASA loyalty card at the restaurant, amass points for eating there and earn delicious rewards.

Contact info:

13120 Shaker Square
Cleveland, OH 44120
(216) 767-1111



Minh Ahn

menuI have been on an Asian kick recently. One of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Cleveland, in my opinion, is Minh Ahn. It is located on Detroit Road just on the outskirts of Gordon Square in what is called “Little Saigon.” It looks like a hole in the wall in the middle of what suburbanites might feel is fairly sketchy neighborhood. It is actually fairly safe, and they have an enclosed parking lot that sees a fair amount of traffic.

Minh Anh is a family-run restaurant that has been in business since 1984. Everything is very fresh, because there is a Vietnamese market on the other side of the parking lot. They don’t concentrate on aestheIMAG0767tics. The Muzak is horrendous, the place is fairly bare and dated with a fish tank, wood walls and plastic tablecloths under glass, and the website is pretty outdated. However, the place is very clean, and the food is delicious!

The pho is the best in town in my humble opinion. I LOVE their cinnamon beef pho. The broth is rich and full of flavor, and the burst of cinnamon really brings it to the next level, surpassing the other pho joints in town. The noodles are always cooked perfectly, with a decent amount of meats. I chose the #22 (Phở tái Chin with well done and rare beef & beef balls) this time around. I can take or leave the beef balls, but love the thinly sliced beef. Limes are getting expensive, so the condiments they serve are jalapenos, bean sprouts, and a slice of lemon. If you prefer lime I suggest you bring your own with you. The Thai basil already comes in the broth (and a generous serving at that), and you can clearly see in the photo that the leaves were fresh and not wilted. springrollMy waitress asked why I wasn’t using the chili paste/oil (I am not a fan of spicy), but she showed me how to doctor it up by mixing it with the hoisin sauce and chili sauce in the bottles on the table. About one third of each sauce mixed together in the bowl to taste, and it is not at all spicy and just delicious! I greedily added it to my pho. I ordered a small pho and two egg rolls, and it was the perfect meal.

The egg rolls and spring rolls here are also always a delight. This time around I was so hungry that I dug into the egg rolls without taking a picture. They came out of the oven piping hot. In fact, I burned my tongue on them a bit. I cut them up to let them cool down deluxepadthaia bit, and the pork, cabbage and carrot filling was dense and flavorful while paired with the crispy, flaky wrapper. The fresh Shrimp Spring Roll (#9 – Gỏi Cuốn) is served with a side of peanut sauce for dipping. The roll is always fresh and tasty, and peanut dipping sauce is thick, creamy and delicious!

One of my other favorites here is the Deluxe Pad Thai (#99a). First of all, it is a beautiful, vibrant color (look at the vibrant red cabbage in the photo!) and chock full of everything that makes Pad Thai delicious – fresh rice noodles, shrimp, pork & chicken, bean sprouts and peanuts – and pickled red cabbage.

bunchagioThe Egg Rolls with Vermicelli (#50 – Bún Chả giò) is wonderful. It features a huge bowl of noodles, egg rolls, pickled carrots and  cabbage, cucumber, bean sprouts, onions, spicy ground peanuts and tiny fried onions. Next time I am ordering the grilled pork (#53 – Bún thịt nướng) – and order egg rolls on the side to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Minh Ahn is a dependable, affordable, and friendly place to eat. I’ve been here by myself numerous times as well as one time with a fairly large group of dining out enthusiasts, and not a single person complained about their meal. We all shared, and although we had a variety of dischickenszechuanhes ranging from Bun dishes, Vegetarian Szechuan (pictured), Scallop Hibachi, Vietnamese Stir Fried Noodles, and numerous curry dishes the hands down favorite was the cinnamon beef pho! If you want some flavorful Vietnamese cuisine you won’t go wrong here! Just be sure to wear a shirt that you can clean. I left after my most recent visit wearing quite a bit of pho broth!

Contact info:

Minh Ahn
5428 Detroit Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44102
(216) 961-9671

Aladdin’s Eatery

I have been a fan of Aladdin’s, a local Cleveland chain, for years now. Headquartered in Lakewood, the company also has locations in Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1994.

IMAG0488I first started eating there when I lived on the West Side (their Berea location), and now enjoy the local eateries on the East Side (Cleveland Heights as well as Hudson). The food is solid and affordable, and the restaurant is very vegetarian-friendly. I am confident when I claim that Aladdin’s has the best hummus in Cleveland. Hands down. I am also extremely partial to their dawali (grape leaves stuffed with rice, chick peas, tomato, and parsley). The falafel also rocks. The vegetarian combo appetizer is a nice easy meal or easy to share. It features hummus, tabouli, baba, falafel, and dawali.

IMAG0489My sister first turned me onto their V-9 soup, which is amazing. It features 9 different vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, peas, zucchini, peppers, and celery (the ninth veggie might be squash, but I can’t remember off the top of my head). In any case, it is divine, and when I first tried it I was not a fan of vegetables. One taste and I was hooked and ordered my own bowl. It is a great low calorie soup that warms the soul. Just look at the glisten on the broth and the fresh parsley floating on top. Yum. You can also add chicken to it for a heartier meal.

IMAG0507The Flavor Savor Special offers a little bit of everything. It features grilled chicken mishwi and beef kafta on a bed of seasoned white rice with vermicelli, served with mixed greens, hummus and falafel. The beef kafta has a zesty flavor to it, while the chicken mishwi is scrumptious. The falafel was moist and delicious. Most of the time falafel is overcooked and dry. Not here. And I could eat a ton of their rice and vermicelli. Aladdin’s is known for their hot sauce. I ordered it without, but unfortunately my waiter served it to me anyway and I thought it was salad dressing. Yeah, it isn’t salad dressing, so I wasn’t able to enjoy my salad on my last visit.

IMAG0490I also have a special place in my heart for their rolled pitas. Aladdin’s is known for its pita bread. Most everything is served with warm pita on the side. The rolled pitas are a nice pairing with the V-9 soup. I love the chicken shawarma rolled pita (I was eating it before The Avengers made chicken shawarma cool!), but recently tried the tuna steak rolled pita and fell in love. It features char-grilled tuna steak, greens, onion turnips, pickles, and curry spice topped with Aladdin’s garlic sauce (I quickly became addicted to this sauce!). The tuna was perfectly cooked and paired well with the turnips and pickles, which gave it chickenpitzaa nice flavor over and above the curry-garlic sauce. I cut it in half here to show off the filling and to make it a little more manageable to eat.

Aladdin’s is also known for their baked goods. The baklava is delicious, as are their carrot cake and Chocolate Bomb cake. They currently have a triple chocolate mousse cake that looks pretty amazing. All of their baked goods are made by Jasmine’s Bakery, which was established in 1997 to provide baked goods for Aladdin’s. I’m assuming it is a wink to the 1992 Disney classic, Aladdin, which makes me smile.

It is also a good place to meet friends if you are juicing. Their fresh juices and smoothies are delicious.

Superior Pho

IMG_0841Pho (pronounced “phau”) has become very popular in the last few years. Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles, a few herbs, and meat. Pho originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese refugees brought pho to many countries.

The consensus among foodies is that Superior Pho is the number one place for slurping pho in IMG_0846Cleveland. It has been voted Cleveland’s Best Asian Restaurant in Scene Magazine and has an average rating of 4.5 stars from 217 reviews on Yelp. It is located inside a rather unassuming shopping plaza off of Superior that features several other ethnic restaurants (including a Korean restaurant), and the best way to enter is from the parking lot in the back. It is not visible from the street (look for No. 1 Pho and turn down IMG_0842E. 31st to park). You really have to look for it. Superior Pho was one of the first pho houses in Northeast Ohio and still remains one of the best.

Superior Pho without a doubt has excellent pho, but I also like some other things off their menu. I started my meal with a Vietnamese coffee. Water percolates through strong coffee grounds into a cup with condensed milk. It definitely gives you a caffeine jolt – and is fun to watch.

The spring roll is made with delightfully fresh and crisp ingredients, including shrimp, carrots, IMG_0848cucumber, Thai basil and mint, wrapped in a rice paper wrapper. It is served with a lovely peanut-chili dipping sauce that gives it a little zing.

Pho is available with a number of different meats, including tendon and tripe. I always order the Number 10 combination because it features a banh mi and a large pho of my choice. I usually orderIMG_0851 the Phở tái chín, which is a combination of well done brisket and eye round steak). The pho is always piping hot and plentiful. To make pho, a small mound of vermicelli noodles is topped with beef or chicken, then covered with ladlefuls of fragrant pho broth. The steaming bowls are served with a plate piled with fresh bean sprouts, sprigs of Thai basil, slices of jalapeno peppers and slices of fresh lime, which IMG_0850are used to adjust your pho to taste. Purists don’t add hoisin, Sriracha or fish sauce to the pho (they prefer to put it on a plate and dip the meat in), but I like to mix a couple squirts of Sriracha hot sauce. There is no wrong way to eat pho. The piping hot broth cooks the meat and vegetables as it is being brought to your table. I made the mistake of ordering pho to go once. The broth had cooled too much to properly cook the meat. Never again.

Superior Pho’s banh mi is also excellent. It features roast pork, pate, cilantro, jalapeno slices, and shredded cucumber and radish on a crispy roll. The roast pork is not char-grilled like at Saigon Grille, but it IMAG4951is still a nice sandwich. I have never had a bad one here, and I have eaten here quite a bit.

They also offer Combination Meals that give you a bit more bang for your buck. Shown here to the left is Meal #1, which is a spring or summer roll (your choice), small pho of your choice, and a beverage for $11. I usually order the Meal #10, which is a bahn mi, a large pho of your choice, and a beverage for $13.50.

Try to come at off-times, because there are lines and it is often standing room only during peak times. Come hungry and be prepared to bring leftover pho home, because even the small pho is quite large.

Contact info:

Superior Pho
3030 Superior Avenue E
Cleveland, Ohio 44114

Le Bistro du Beaujolais

Photo from Le Bistro du Beaujolais website
Photo from Le Bistro du Beaujolais website

IMG_20121109_210833I learned to appreciate French food living in Europe for six years. Le Bistro du Beaujolais is a charming little French restaurant located on the corner of Columbia Road and Mill Street on the edge of Grand Pacific Junction in the heart of my hometown, Olmsted Falls. I only wish this restaurant had existed then, but then again we didn’t go out to eat very often and when we did we went to Nam Wah in Berea. I apologize in advance for the darkness of some of the pictures. I did not want to disturb the other diners with a flash.

The owners Georges and Claudie D’Arras are welcoming, and the food is delicious. Georges is an absolutely charming and gregarious host, while his wife Claudie oversees the kitchen. The location burned down in 2009, and they worked to meticulously recreate the restaurant. The original 1830 house, designated a historic landmark, was restored in ten months and looks almost exactly as it did before. The restaurant features two cozy rooms as well as a lovely outdoor patio. I particularly love the light fixtures, which are whimsical music holders. IMG_20121109_202207

Their 3-course prix fixe menu offers a variety of choices at a reasonable price of $27. You have your choice between 3 starters, 3 entrees and a dessert. I have ordered this in the past and been very happy with my choice. I have also thoroughly enjoyed their vegetarian offerings, including the most delicious vegetarian roll-up dish featuring lentils I have ever eaten. I liked it so much I was back within a week to order it again – and I live on the East Side of Cleveland. It’s worth the drive.

I met a friend here recently to celebrate her birthday. I decided to splurge and ordered a la carte because I wanted their French onion soup. It was well-seasoned, the onions were nicely caramelized, and the cheese was sufficiently melty and gooey. Just as a good French onion soup should be. IMG_20121109_204735

One of my favorite entrees on the menu is probably something you have never heard of – the baked skate wing (Alle de Raie Sauce à la Compote d’Échalotes). Skate is type of Ray (its appearance is similar to a stingray). Despite being a cartilaginous fish it is not at all fishy. I would have never tried it if Georges hadn’t brought one out for us to try the first time I dined here with my dining out group. It is served topped with a delicate shallot and butter sauce over rice and simply melts in your mouth. I am a HUGE fan. You simply have to taste it to appreciate it. IMG_20121109_211820

I finished my meal with a dense and rich mousse au chocolat. As you can see from the photo the portion was generous (served in a clear tea cup) and topped with real whipped cream and chocolate powder.

As a true French bistro, they serve only French wines. The staff can help you choose the perfect wine with your meal. Since they only serve French wines they can serve by the glass while maintaining a wide range of inventory at a great value.

Word to the wise: if they have coq au vin on special, order it. You won’t regret it.

Contact info:

Le Bistro du Beaujolais
8134 Columbia Road
Olmsted Falls, OH 44017
(440) 235-8883

Cafe Tandoor

IMG_20130509_132504I love Indian food. I know exactly when my love affair with Indian food started. I was in grad school in 1993, and my German ex-boyfriend visited my family and me for Christmas. He had a craving for Indian. I looked up Indian restaurants in the phone book, and we headed off to what I am fairly certain was Cafe Tandoor on Cedar Road in Cleveland Heights. The Saag Gosht (lamb with a seasoned spinach sauce) sounded good to me, and I’ve been a fan ever since. It may not look pretty, but it is delicious. Since then I have tried many Indian dishes with varying enthusiasm, but I always come back to my Saag Gosht. IMG_20130509_132241Sometimes I go crazy and order Chicken Saag, but most restaurants don’t have it on their menu.

The fact that I met the owner of the restaurant last summer during an NEO Food Tour and she was absolutely lovely helps me want to support the locally owned independent restaurant even more (she and her husband also own the Atma Center and Taste).

I was craving Indian the other day and decided to visit the very same Cafe Tandoor that started it all for a late lunch. They also have a location in Aurora that I visited numerous times when I lived with my parents for brief spell in 2001 as well as one in Westlake for you West Siders.

I love their garlic naan, which is topped with garlic and butter, but I didn’t order it this time around. It is best shared with othersIMG_20130509_132249. I started my meal by ordering the chicken pakora and vegetable samosas. I ate half of each and took the other half home. They were accompanied by a nice variety of yogurts and chutneys. Chicken pakora are boneless pieces of chicken mixed with spices and chick pea flour and deep fried. ThIMG_20130509_134142e breading was so light I didn’t notice it at all. The chicken pakoras were not too spicy and just a wee bit dry, but the chutney moistened them up sufficiently. Samosa are triangular pastries filled with potatoes, peas, cashews, raisins and spices. The samosa was as delicious as ever. They have to be my favorite Indian appetizer.

As I stated before, I ordered the Saag Gosht. I ordered it mild, because I am a big baby when it comes to spicy food. It was not overly spicy and perfectly seasoned. The lamb was not to fatty or too dry. It was succulent and paired well with the spinach.

IMG_20130509_131836I ordered a mango juice and a chai (Masala tea). The mango juice was refreshing and was a nice palate cleanser. I was less enthused about the chai. My best friend’s mother makes a delicious, well-seasoned chai with black tea and Indian spices such as cardamon. This one was sadly lacking in any kind of flavor, and the addition of sugar did not help it much.

If you like fish I highly recommend ordering the Bombay Fish Curry, which features catfish simmered in garlic, ginger, lemon and spices in a tomato-based sauce. I ordered it through Deliver Me Food and loved it.

Cafe Tandoor was voted Cleveland’s Best Indian Restaurant in the Cleveland area Hot List, so if you haven’t tried it I suggest you do.

Contact info:

Cafe Tandoor
2096 S Taylor Road
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118
(216) 371-8500

They also have locations in Aurora (96 Barrington Town Center) and Westlake (30030 Detroit Rd.)

Dim Sum at Emperor’s Palace

IMG_20130429_123701There’s a new place in town for dim sum, and it is fabulous. I’ve been here for dim sum four times now, and it has yet to disappoint. My friends Diane and Nancy were the first people to tell me about it, and they were there within 24 hours from when it opened. I was so glad they talked about it, because it is now one of my favorite places downtown. The staff is friendly, the food is delicious (and plentiful), and the prices are almost criminally cheap.

IMG_20130429_122933Emperor’s Palace opened in Cleveland’s former Chinatown area, on Rockwell Avenue between E 21st and E 24th Street. The restaurant seems like it spans the entire block, but there’s only one set of doors to enter through (and hint: the right door is always locked and is the one I always go to first). Free parking is available along the street as well as in the huge parking lot across the street, which is lined with statues of the Chinese zodiac. The decor is ornate, with lots of gold trim and chandeliers. They used to have a buffet table in the center, but they seem to have decided to focus on their dim sum and made-to-order food.

The dim sum here is served differently. Most dim sum places serve their dim sum from carts that are wheeled around the room, but Emperor’s Palace chooses to bring the entrees fresh from the kitchen, ensuring that the food is piping hot. The food is ordered and then brought out as soon as it is ready.

Dim sum is always best when shared with several people – and especially fun when shared with a larger group because you can try more things and send them around on the lazy Susan in the center of the table. I met several friends today for lunch. We feasted on eight different dim sum plates, and splitting the bill (including a generous tip) between the four of us gave us a grand total of $9.50 a piece – and we brought some leftovers home with us.IMG_20130429_114648

My favorite things on the menu are the steamed shrimp dumplings, the turnip cakes, and the sticky rice with preserved meats. The BBQ pork buns were also requested by a member of our table, and my Chinese-American friend G. and the waitress decided on several other plates for us (in Chinese so we were pleasantly surprised with some new things).IMG_20130429_115638

We started off with the pineapple buns, which were something that G. didn’t realize she had ordered, but were loved by everyone at the table. The dough was light and pleasantly yeasty, and the crust was flaky and delicious. The pineapple was not overpowering and simply delightful. I will definitely be ordering this again – perhaps as the finishing touch for dessert. The waitress also brought out a Century egg porridge/congee that G. requested since her grandmother used to make it. The waitress was unsure we would like it, and – although we assured her we would gladly try anything – she was right. It was deemed too bland by the rest of us, so I don’t think I would order this again. G. got to take several servings home with her to enjoy for breakfast this week.

I never really enjoyed turnip cake until I tried the one at Emperor’s Palace. Now I’m hooked. I’m always tempted to order a second order to go at the end of the meal to enjoy at home. Their “turnip cake country style” features dried shrimp and pork, which makes it extremely flavorful and fresh. IMG_20130429_120327The turnip is delicate and flaky with a nice seared crust on top. The size tends to vary every time I’ve been here (the cakes are getting smaller), but the flavor has never disappointed me. They also reheat really well at home.

The Emperor’s steamed shrimp dumplings are addictive. I seriously crave them after I leave as well as the next day. They are little delicate clouds of rice dumpling encasing a succulent shrimp filling. I can’t even begin to describe them without swooning. They are *that* good!

IMG_20130429_120905Another favorite of mine is the lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice. I love the delicate scent the lotus leaf gives to this dish and have always enjoyed it at other places that serve dim sum. The one at Emperor’s Palace is just bursting with a variety of meats, including pork, shrimp, chicken, and sausage. It is extremely filling, and three of us split one of the two wrapped packages in the order. I took the second one home to reheat for dinner tonight.

Their “Sao mai” (aka sui mai or shu mei depending on the translation) is dense and flavorful. It is a two-bite dim sum delicacy. I have enjoyed it both times we have ordered it.IMG_20130429_120816

Everyone loves the BBQ pork buns, but I have never been a huge fan. The BBQ pork buns here are light and fluffy, and the filling is flavorful. If you love them I’m sure you will be delighted. I am not including a photo here (my photo came out blurry), but you can see them in the photo below peeking out from behind the Shanghai juicy buns.

IMG_20130429_120336We went early today, because G. really wanted the Shanghai juicy buns and they have always been out of them when we’ve been there later in the day. We met at 11:30 (they open at 11) and were able to enjoy these little round nuggets. Emperor’s Shanghai soup dumplings are golf ball-sized buns that contain a filling of pork (and sometimes crab) and about a tablespoon of broth.  When properly made, Shanghai juicy buns are really juicy, so they are definitely to be enjoyed in one bite. The proper way to eat it is to bite off the top of the bun and blow into the hole to cool off the soup, then either pour some of the accompanying gingered rice vinegar (be sure to say yes when asked if you want the sauce with it) into it. Or you can do as I did and dip it in the sauce and stuff it into your mouth so that when you bite into it the juice doesn’t spurt out all over the front of your shirt. Shanghai juicy buns are very labor-intensive and it’s not easy to make the skin paper-thin and stuff the dumpling so full of juice, so if they have it that day I highly recommend giving them a try.

!dimsumOther dim sum plates I have enjoyed here in the past (but didn’t take photos of) include the scallion pancakes, pan fried pork dumplings (which we were given by mistake because it was supposed to go to another table – our gain!), fried cruller rice crêpes, sesame pork buns, tofu skin (surprisingly delicious!) and pumpkin cakes. We are always too full to order the egg custard tarts at the end. For more photos of Emperor’s Palace, check out my friend Edsel’s photostream on Flickr. My go-to person for excellent Chinese food, Nancy of Fun Playing with Food, also has some great pictures of some other dim sum dishes and entrees on her blog post on Emperor’s Palace.

Maybe one of these days I will actually order an entree here, but when the dim sum is so delicious and flavorful it is hard not to stick with what I love.

Contact info:

Emperor’s Palace
2136 Rockwell Avenue
Cleveland OH 44114
(216) 861-9999