Cleveland, OH

Los Angeles. San Francisco. New York City. Those are the places most people think of as the cities to go to for good Asian food in America. Cleveland, Ohio, would likely not be on anyone’s mind. Despite its relatively bland and uninspiring reputation, I felt compelled to try the Asian food in the city during my brief time there last weekend to witness the marriage of two wonderful friends. This was reinforced when, much to my surprise, Cleveland had a couple restaurants that scored fairly well in the Dim Sum Rankings I compiled last year. Sadly, I didn’t get enough time to eat at all the restaurants I wanted to go to, but here are thoughts on the two that I did manage to squeeze in with my 36 hours in town.

Saigon
2061 E 4th Street
Cleveland, OH 44115

On Thursday I arrived in Cleveland shortly before game 4 of the NBA finals. After I dropped my bag off at the place I was staying, I decided to wander and explore downtown Cleveland a little bit. Unbeknownst to me, the Quicken Loans Arena where the Cleveland Cavaliers play is right next to downtown, so nearly all the streets were packed and my cell phone data became non-existent. I panicked a little as I was essentially flying blind on where to eat, without access to Yelp, Chowhound, or the travel recommendations of my friends. So as I turned into the pedestrian mall of East 4th Street, I was anxious. However, I saw the sign for Saigon and vaguely remembered that it was on my friends’ travel recommendations for the wedding. I breathed a little easier and went in to grab a table.

I sat down and browsed the menu, which was a little smaller than the pan-Vietnamese menus I was used to. I did, however, notice that the menu had both southern and central Vietnamese dishes so I proceeded to ask the server what they thought was best. Given the recommendation, I order the Bún bò Huế and then some crispy spring rolls (or what most Americans would refer to as egg rolls). My thoughts on them below:

Bun bo Hue at Saigon

Bun bo Hue at Saigon

  • Bún bò Huế – While this version doesn’t have oxtail or pork knuckle, this is possibly the best version of this dish I’ve had without either item. Most attempts with just beef shank are too thin and water/brothy but this version had a very nice slight thickness and had a decent amount of lemongrass and shrimp paste. They did add other cuts of beef like beef meatballs to make up for the lack of oxtail. I was almost tempted to order another bowl.
Chả giò at Saigon

Chả giò at Saigon

  • Chả giò (crispy spring rolls) – These fried spring rolls were fried perfectly, though I felt they had slightly too much pork. That, in and of itself is, not a bad thing. I just wish it had a little more glass noodles, carrots, and seasoning to balance it out. It paired very well with the excellent fish sauce though.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Saigon. There are even Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area that would be negatively compared to this delightful place in the middle of downtown Cleveland. I can see why my friends like this place.

Emperor’s Palace
2136 Rockwell Ave
Cleveland, OH 44114

Given that I had no obligations for lunch on Friday, I decided to eat some dim sum. I chose Emperor’s Palace because it placed ever so slightly above the more popular Li Wah in my dim sum rankings and I only had one lunch meal in town. So the next morning, after I had laundered and pressed my clothes for the wedding later that day, I drove over to Emperor’s Palace in Cleveland’s old Chinatown.

Entering the restaurant I sat down at one of their many open tables. Normally the relative lack of people at the restaurant would worry people, but the few other tables occupied were of Chinese families and friends talking loudly in Cantonese, greatly relieving me. I browsed the menu and ordered the following:

Dim Sum at Emperor's Palace

Dim Sum at Emperor’s Palace

  • Emperor’s Steam Shrimp Dumpling – I give credit to Emperor’s Palace that they make their dim sum from scratch using fresh (as possible) shrimp. While the skin was a little bit too thick, the shrimp filling was nice, especially given that many dim sum places outside large coastal metro areas tend to use freezer burnt frozen shrimp.
  • Turnip Cake – These also showed signs of being made from scratch with nice bits of shredded and mashed daikon. The texture could have been more refined, but it was grilled fairly nicely with a crispy exterior but soft interior.
  • Egg Custard Bun – These buns were petite but really nice. The custard was sweet but not overpowering and the buns were nice and fluffy instead of oversteamed and soggy as some other restaurants might do.
  • Sao Mai – These were by far the worst item I had. Why they did try hard with a handmade pork filling and light wonton wrappers, I felt that these were oversteamed. The pork tasted a little overcooked and chewy while the wonton wrapper fell apart and tasted sticky. At least they didn’t just reheat some frozen aisle sui mai though, which I definitely can’t say of some other places.

All in all it was definitely better than many dim sum restaurants outside of the big 3 of LA, San Francisco, and NYC. After swinging by Li Wah right after just to check it out, I do wish I had gone there instead, though it’s great to know Cleveland residents are not left wanting, with two good choices for dim sum.

I just wished I had more time in Cleveland because I felt that 36 hours was definitely not enough time to even explore the Asian food options of the area, which showed tremendous signs of promise just from these two restaurants. I’d even argue that Cleveland has a better Asian food scene than Philadelphia, even though Philly has a still thriving Chinatown. I suppose it just means I have another excuse to do a Midwestern road trip, not only to see some friends, but to eat some great food.

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