|I like to think of myself as a gastronomic Indiana Jones, a fearless food adventurer, always hungry for a challenge and ready to wander off the eaten path for a taste of excitement. There’s no part of the city or the suburbs I won’t venture into, nothing I won’t try at least once (unless it contains bananas or includes still-living creatures). So I can often be found indulging my passion for culinary treasure hunting at ethnic restaurants.
Finally, our city’s ethnic diversity has translated into restaurants that get beyond our Old World roots. At these five, the only ones of their kind in Northeast Ohio, you’ll encounter truly unique dishes. So be brave: Try something new. Indy’s trademark fedora, leather jacket and bullwhip not required.
Machu Picchu (850 Euclid Ave., City Club Building, Cleveland, 216-664-9712) is Ohio’s first and only Peruvian restaurant. Corn and potatoes show up in many preparations. The food is not spicy but sides of yellow pepper sauce and salsa criolla, made with red onions in lime juice, add zip to just about everything. Lima seems just a little bit closer when you’re sipping a pisco sour and munching on the national snack — salty fried kernels of corn. Don’t miss: Pollo a la brasa (roast chicken, $10) or ceviche de pescado (cold, marinated talapia, $12.25).
If you enjoy Greek and Middle Eastern food, you’ll become a devotee of the Turkish dishes at Anatolia Café (13915 Cedar Road, South Euclid, 216-321-4400). The small, pleasant restaurant blends Mediterranean and North African culinary traditions. I’ve run into Fire’s chef/ owner Doug Katz and his family here on more than one occasion, a sure sign that the fare is exceptional. Don’t miss: Iskendar (marinated slices of lamb in yogurt sauce, $12.95), stuffed eggplant ($12.50).
La Casa Tazumal (3260 W. 105th St., Cleveland, 216- 688-1803) is a tiny, minimalist storefront eatery serving the corn-and-bean cuisine of El Salvador. Inside, all is bright and cheerful. One server handles the entire room. And though she only speaks Spanish, the menu includes descriptions for everything in English. Pointing gets you dinner and even the most linguistically impaired gringo can manage a gracias or two. A communal bowl of curtido, a spicy pickled cabbage salad, is always free and on the table. Cool the bite with ensalada, a fruit cocktail in a glass. Although the names of some dishes sound Mexican, the preparation is quite different. Get a side of crema — this Central American sour cream is a treat. Don’t miss: Rellenos de guisquil (chayote squash baked with cheese, $6.95), combinado appetizer (a tamale; a pupusa, a soft, thick corn tortilla stuffed with meat; and a pastel, a fried tortilla stuffed with beef, $4.50).
You’ve heard of an out-of-body experience. Visiting Empress Taytu (6125 St. Clair Ave., Cleveland, 216-391- 9400) is an out-of-Cleveland experience. Servers wear traditional Ethiopian dress, and cutlery is optional. The preferred method for moving the fiery dips and stews from plate to mouth is with pieces of injera, a soft flat bread baked fresh each day. Don’t miss: Sambusa (pastry dough filled with lentils or beef, $3.50-$4), tibs (beef or chicken sautéed in spiced butter, $14.50).
You may have had Indian food before, but you’ll likely be surprised by the menu at Udupi Café (6339 Olde York Road, Parma Heights, 440-743-7154). It serves an all-vegetarian cuisine from the coastal district of Karnataka in southern India that is rarely reproduced in the U.S. When a waiter emerges from the kitchen with an order of batura, a bread that puffs up like an oversized soufflé in the oven, he’s a one-man parade. Every head turns to watch the impressive-looking thing go by. Don’t miss: Vada (fried lentil donuts, $3.50), uthappam (pancakes topped with tomatoes, onions, peas and chiles $5.99).
Getting the call from Annie Chiu. Her spicy mussels have lots of groupies, but because it’s so labor intensive, she won’t put the item on Sun Luck Garden’s menu. Instead, Chiu phones fans to let us know when she’s making them. And when Annie calls, we always answer. 1901 S. Taylor Road, Cleveland Heights, (216) 397-7676.