Navigate the Market
The West Side Market is the best kind of cooking school, says Marilou Suszko, the local food advocate and coauthor of a new book, Cleveland's West Side Market: 100 Years and Still Cooking. "The real butchers are there, the guys who know how to create the cuts you're learning about on the Food Network," she explains. "The vendors are very good at educating you about their product." Suszko, who grew up winding her way through West Side Market stalls with her grandparents, breaks down the best approach to shopping at this throwback food emporium.
1. Orient yourself. The market, Suszko explains, is laid out in a manageable grid of avenues and corridors. "To the west is the balcony. To the east is the clock. There are avenues labeled A, B, C, all the way through H, and each stand has a letter and a number." Most people are so awed by the sights that they miss the addresses tacked onto each stand. Check out westsidemarket.org, where you'll find a list of vendors with their specialties and addresses.
2. Be inquisitive. This is the place to ask questions. "There are a lot of people who want you to come back," says Suszko. The market includes more than 100 vendors. "Each is an expert in their own field," she says. "The longtime career butcher, who's cutting meat from quarters and halves, they can tell you all about these cuts — where it comes from, how you should cook it, how you should avoid cooking it, what things go great with it." And, she notes, most vendors are happy to provide a taste — just ask.
3. Be prepared. This is especially true when it comes to produce, says Suszko. "When the vendor says, 'This is at the peak of ripeness — you need to use it now,' it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it — it means that it needs to be used now. He wants to move the product." Many of the vendors get their products at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal, so they're savvy shoppers, snagging deals on broken lots and super ripe food, and they pass those savings on to their customers. "Don't ever forget your cooler, packed with ice packs in the back of the car," she says.