I already knew Cleveland has a reputation as a fun town. It's got the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (just called "the Rock Hall" by most everybody) and it's the home of Big Fun, which has to be the greatest toy store anywhere in the country. Where else can you see an Austin Powers action figure next to an action figure of D-Day from "Animal House" -- both in their original packages?
What I didn't realize was that Cleveland may be one of the great food destinations in the United States. Yeah, I said it: New York has pretensions, San Francisco has ambitions. But baby, only Cleveland has Slyman's, Home of Cleveland's Biggest Corned Beef Sandwich.
Only Cleveland has an Irish restaurant called The Harp, where you can sit out on a patio with a view of the skyline, Lake Erie and a salt mine while eating a corned beef boxty -- all the makings of a Reuben, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing, between two potato pancakes. (I'd post a picture but trust me -- it doesn't look nearly as good as it tastes.)
Cleveland isn't the only city with a Little Italy, but this one is strung along a hill going up to Cleveland Heights and it smells like garlic even when we drove through at 9 a.m. one morning.
I was touring this cornucopia of delights on a college tour with my high school senior son, who wanted to visit Kenyon and Oberlin. And since his godmother is a writer in Cleveland, we grabbed the chance to follow in the footsteps of the late and still very lamented Harvey Pekar, also a denizen of Cleveland Heights.
On Saturday morning, our friend took us to the West Side Market, one of the last great surviving city markets. It was packed with people stocking up on everything from perogies to carnitas. I haunt city markets wherever I go, but this one had more life than even San Francisco's Ferry Market Plaza. There was a jazz band playing on a walkway upstairs, overlooking the whole boiling mass of food shoppers down below.
Over that lunch of boxties, my friend, a dedicated vegetarian who lives vicariously by making other people eat meat, offered my son a lineup of Saturday night choices: He could choose between Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian or Russian. Then she gave him a lesson on which is which, based mainly on use of paprika vs. mushrooms. We picked Hungarian and ended up at Balaton in Shaker Square, tucking into big plates of their famous weiner schnitzel and veal paprikash.
On the way to the airport, our friend gave us two sets of directions: One, to get to the Rock Hall. The other, how to pass right by Slyman's on the way to the airport to pick up something that would get us through two airports before we would get back home to Charlotte. At the airport, we unwrapped our sandwiches and I measured mine: 4 inches thick, not counting the three slices of rye bread.
Take that, San Francisco.