If fast-food joints are what spring to mind when you're looking for an inexpensive meal, maybe it's time to adjust your thinking. Some of Cleveland's best quick, casual grub comes from that bastion of old-time goodness, the historic West Side Market. In honor of the Market's ongoing centennial, we made a foray though the 100-plus stands, looking for ready-to-eat alternatives to pricey restaurant meals. We found nearly a dozen spots where hungry visitors can score hearty fare for 10 bucks or less. That includes old-timers like Maha's Falafel ($4.40 for a falafel wrap with lettuce, tomato, and tahini; $4.75 if you add hummus), Frank's Bratwurst ($3 for a plain brat on a bun; $3.50 with kraut), and Johnny Hot Dog (an all-beef bargain at $2.25). But don't overlook new additions like Noodlecat, where you'll find steamed buns for $3 and noodle dishes for $6 to $9. Then there's Kim Se: We've heard nothing but raves for owner Sophie Heng's $2 chicken wings stuffed with minced chicken, bean-thread noodles, and veggies. While the market doesn't provide any sit-down space for grazers, you can always take your food up to the balcony, where the built-in tile bench affords a godlike perspective on the bustling scene below.
Here are two of our favorite quick food stops:
Orale Contemporary Mexican Cuisine
Peering into the cases of this centrally located food stand is like pressing your nose against the window of a jewelry store: Colorful salads, luscious salsas, vibrant sides, and row after row of saucy enchiladas in shades of green and red sparkle from behind the glass, beckoning peckish shoppers to sate their hunger here. As the name implies, the focus is on contemporary ingredients prepared in traditional fashion. Tamales, empanadas, chile rellenos, enchiladas, salads, and more are prepared at owner Roberto Rodriguez's nearby Ohio City restaurant, Orale Kitchen, and brought in fresh each market day. Many of the dishes are vegetarian and vegan friendly; manager Kristen Fahl says the kitchen goes easy on salt and other additives too. After much salivating, we finally settled on two $2.25 enchiladas — shredded pork in a rich mole sauce, and black beans and cheese in a perky tomatillo sauce. On the side, we threw in small portions of cilantro rice and refried black beans ($2.50 each). Fahl heated it all up in the microwave, then wrapped the enchiladas in wax paper and foil, packed the sides in plastic containers, and tossed everything into a paper bag with napkins and a plastic fork. We ate as we strolled, and then took the plentiful leftovers home for a late-night nosh.
Total cost: $9.50.
Stand F-7; 216-781-4190
Crêpes De Luxe (C-2)
There's nothing froufrou about the savory crêpes served up at Crêpes De Luxe: Hot, hearty, and stuffed with meats, cheeses, and veggies from nearby market stands, they're definitely two-fisted treats. (The savories are in addition to the sweet variety, which run $3 to $6, with such dessert-worthy fillings as Nutella, strawberries, and chocolate.) Made with buckwheat flour, which adds heft and a fine, earthy aroma, the savory crêpes make a satisfying meal, filled with flavorful combos like chicken, bacon, and cheddar; chevre, baby spinach, and tomato; smoked salmon, spinach, and crème fraîche; and ham, brie, and asparagus. Our pick was the Montreal, which staffer Christia Rowland says is a best-seller. Made with thinly sliced smoked brisket from nearby Lovaszy Meats, Emmental from Irene Dever's stand, and a swoosh of Dijon mustard, the $6 crêpe was a melty, gooey delight. We appreciated the way it was packaged too: loosely wrapped in red-and-white-checked wax paper and slipped into a sturdy cardboard holder for easy, mess-free noshing. To go with, we grabbed a $1 cup of freshly ground coffee from next-door's City Roast, then headed up to the balcony to enjoy.
Total cost: $7.
Stand C-2, 216-621-2479, crepesdeluxe.com
The West Side Market is at 1979 West 25th St. Find market hours and a list of vendors at westsidemarket.org.