Cleveland's west side has always been a melting pot of ethnic families and foods. At first, Italian and Irish immigrants dominated West Park, placed between West 117th Street and Rocky River Drive, filling the gap between Lakewood and Brookpark.
Today, the area boasts one of the highest concentrations of Middle Eastern immigrants, hailing from Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. With more than an estimated 17,000 people of Arab ancestry living in Cuyahoga County, the area has become home to dozens of Arabic businesses, including fast food establishments, restaurants and groceries.
"We're a neighborhood full of small businesses," says Rachel Napolitano, neighborhood marketing specialist at the Bellaire Puritas Development Corporation. "There are few vacancies either commercial or industrial in our neighborhood." Over the past months, the area has seen some beloved eateries go out of business, including Café Falafel and Cuisine du Cambodge. However, for every business that fails, two more seem to pop up.
"Immigrants tend to be very entrepreneurial because they can be their own boss; it's an easier way to find employment. There are those opportunities in our neighborhood and we're happy that immigrants continue to find our neighborhood a good place to start out in America," Napolitano says as we prepare to take a tour of some of her favorite lunch spots she's accumulated in the 13 years she's worked for the CDC.
Bylo Gyro Bob's (14007 Puritas Ave., 216-252-8670) is our first stop. Wedged between a cell phone store and a barbershop, the business has been in the same location since the 1980s though it has changed ownership. Three stand-up broilers take center stage behind the counter, where customers gaze up at a billboard-sized menu as eclectic as the community that frequents the store, especially during lunch.
Falafel, shawarma, spinach pies and stuffed grape leaves are scattered throughout the menu, along with corned beef, kielbasa, catfish or perch sandwiches, and of course their gyros. Served on a fluffy piece of fresh pita with tomatoes and sauce, the seasoning as well as their homemade hot sauce are standouts on this sandwich. Their daily special board advertises two gyros for $8.
An advertisement is taped to the wall for a neighborhood summit organized by Napolitano and her employers. "I think having a meal together is a great way for people to get to know each other, their neighbors. It's a critical part of community building," she says.
Next, we travel to Arabian Village Market (12926 Lorain Ave., 216-938-9260) where large pans of halal meats, fried vegetables, rice and everything Mediterranean await those craving lunch or dinner takeout. "It's something different everyday," the man assisting us says as he points to each dish, pronouncing the names slowly. Maqluba and kofta are available today, along with many honey soaked pastries including baklava, lokma and mshabak. The store is also a grocery where specialty items can be purchased for a steal, like a bulk-sized container of dates for $5.
Further down Lorain is Assad's Bakery (12719 Lorain Ave., 216-251-5777, assadsbakery.com), founded by Mike and Fred Assad in 1989. The bakery specializes in fresh wholesale pita bread, similar to Aladdin's. Their grocery stocks specialty olive oils, cheeses, hummus, baba ghanouj and much more.
The Middle Eastern community within West Park is made up of refugees, first- and second-generation immigrants, and Americans with mixed ancestry. Within this hotbed of cultural activity resides food too good to not do a little exploring on your own, if only to get acquainted with a few neighbors.