If consistency is the aim of any worthwhile restaurant, then the West Side Market Café would earn poor marks. Tucked away in the southeast corner of the market, the diminutive diner has been chugging along in some fashion or another for more than half a century. But only recently have serious attempts been made to improve its quality.
In the decade that I've been on this beat, the café has gone from bad to good to average and back again so many times that dining there was a bit like Russian-dressing roulette. It wasn't just the food that was inconsistent: The days and hours of operation seemed to change with the breezes. For the longest time, the café was open only Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday — the standard market days. Later, breakfast and lunch service were added on Tuesdays and Thursdays, followed by weekend dinners and Sunday brunches.
Spring of 2012 trumpeted the arrival of Tom Szoradi, a veteran chef and restaurant owner who has brought the café right back to where it needs to be. For seven years, Szoradi ran Juniper Grille, the popular upscale diner near Progressive Field.
Szoradi is an ideal fit for the West Side Market Café. His culinary wheelhouse is classic American comfort food elevated by top-notch ingredients and sharp technique. According to the new chef, despite being attached to Cleveland's best grocery store, the café was using just 25 percent market-sourced ingredients. He immediately upped that to 85 percent, going so far as to have some vendors create proprietary products for the restaurant.
One of those choice ingredients is the smoky, sultry pastrami that is at the heart of the café's best sandwich — the Reuben on rye. Like all the café's sammies, this one is built atop great bread from Mediterra Bakehouse, buttered and grilled to a crispy turn. In this case, the thin-sliced pastrami is topped with Jarlsberg cheese and a crunchy horseradish-laced slaw — just enough of a twist to keep things interesting.
What he doesn't source from the Market, Szoradi makes himself. That includes the house-cured salmon in the lox-and-eggs sandwich. Like a reconstructed deli platter, the sandwich contains lush folds of fish, pickled red onion, shaved hard-boiled egg, and herbed cheese spread on pumpernickel toast. Also homemade is the roast turkey breast, which arrives warm, juicy, and piled high in the turkey club, where it is joined by bacon, ripe avocado, lettuce, and tomato.
Too heavy a hand with the stone-ground mustard upset the balance in the mushroom grilled cheese, a veggie option with sautéed mushrooms, excellent-quality fontina and muenster cheeses, and a hint of rosemary from the bread.
All sandwiches include dark and crunchy house-fried chips. For $2.50 you can tack on an order of breaded onion rings or sweet-potato tots, which arrive crunchy on the outside but mushy and cloying within.
Start your lunch off with umami-rich tempura-fried shiitakes or Hanky Pankies, a cheesy fondue with fennel-spiked sausage and pumpernickel toasts for dipping. The diminutive lamb sliders are delicious too, but could use a tzatziki-like sauce to brighten them up.
Show up for breakfast at 12:01 p.m. and you will be as disappointed as we were when told that the café is not a breakfast-all-day kind of place. A few brilliant Bloody Marys later and we got over the pain.
A different pre-noon visit confirmed that breakfast, too, is once again firing on all cylinders. In the hash, two over-easy eggs sit atop a mound of crispy potatoes with bits of beef and pork. It's all covered with a crimson-hued mustard sauce. In place of the typical English muffin, toasted semolina bread forms the base for Eggs Benedict with citrus hollandaise. Here, homefries are actually deep-fried potato quarters.
Not to be left out of the long line of café time tinkerers, chef Szoradi recently modified the hours of operation to include late-night dining from midnight to 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Ohio City is hungry for more nighttime options, he said.