Pioneers are gradually bringing fine dining west of Tremont, isolated outposts springing up on a prairie dominated by herds of chain restaurants and fast-food outlets. But before East Siders wax smug about the depth of their cloth-napkin dining choices, it should be pointed out that the West Side has boasting rights, too -- for being home to a vast array of Mom-and-Pop eateries turning out authentic, intriguing and delicious ethnic cuisine.
One such diamond in the rough is Khiêm's in Lakewood, on Madison a block or so east of the Bunts Road intersection.
Soap Opera Diet
Be forewarned, the storefront space is hardly prepossessing. To get in one sweltering summer day, we had to dodge condensation raining steadily from the air conditioner mounted over the doorway. On another visit, an electric fan kept blowing our paper napkins away. Orders are taken over the ice-cream counter, empty since the freezer unit quit. A television in one corner kept a half-dozen lunch diners amused at the latest skullduggery hatched by blow-dried men and botox-lipped women on the afternoon soaps.
But once you dive into a bowl of Bún Bò Sào or spicy Com Gà Xa Ot, you won't waste much attention on your surroundings.
The biggest seller by far is Pho Dac biêt ($3.25 small, $4.25 medium, $5.25 large), seasoned beef broth that originated in the north of Vietnam, steadily acquiring more and more ingredients as it traveled southward. The version served here is packed with thin-sliced London broil, rice noodles, chopped cilantro and green onions. Diners can also add basil, bean sprouts, lime, mint leaves and other condiments to their own taste.
One of the artist/musician regulars extolled to us the virtues of Pho as a remedy for illness and hangovers. A daily helping of the soup may explain why the owner, Khiêm, who says he is nearly 60, could pass for being in his mid-40s. "Keeps me healthy," he agrees.
Pho also led to creation of the restaurant. When Khiêm was downsized from his computer job at BP America about five years ago, he took over a coffee and ice-cream shop in Lakewood to "keep himself busy" until he decides to retire. But his customers started getting a whiff of the Pho Dac biêt he ate at lunch every day. Their eager interest convinced Khiêm to convert the space to a small eatery serving the cuisine of his homeland.
He kept the menu manageable, picking nine of his own favorite dishes. The cooking is done by his otherwise-retired sister, Tuyêt. The family has no history in the restaurant trade.
Generous Portions on the Cheap
Seating, including two stools at the coffee bar, accommodates about 15. Khiêm's still serves espresso, steamers, latté and such (95 cents to $2.25), as well as ice-cream cones, sundaes, shakes and floats ($1.25 to $3.40) when the freezer's working.
But you're not here for froth or slushies. The Bún Cha Gìo ($5.25 medium, $6.25 large) is a bowl loaded with vermicelli rice noodles tossed with bean sprouts, pungent basil leaves and shredded carrots, lettuce and cucumber. That's topped by sectioned, deep-fried Vietnamese eggrolls stuffed with rice, crystal noodles, carrot, chilis and seasoned pork. Pour the accompanying spicy red vinaigrette over everything, go to town with your chopsticks and enjoy the smoldering burn that envelops your mouth. (The eggrolls Cha Gìo are available separately for $1.25 each.)
Bún Bò Sào ($5.25 medium, $6.25 large) proved a winner, as well: a beef stir-fry served over vermicelli rice noodles with sprouts, veggies and crushed peanuts, also heated to taste by your own application of spicy vinaigrette.
|Pick up the September issue of Cleveland Magazine for Michael von Glahn's review of Viva Barcelona in Westlake.|
The most you can spend here is $8.25 for a large entree of stir-fry with shrimp. Portions are generous and all vegetables were fresh and crisp on our visits. Tuyêt makes every dish to order, so it may take 15 to 20 minutes for your entrees to come out, which is no more than you might wait for a pizza.
Lest anyone dismiss Khiêm's as just another hole in the wall, remember that a lot of what are now Cleveland's mainstay ethnic restaurants arose from just such humble origins though Khiêm claims to have no plans to launch bigger things from his current operation. "[When] you expand, it's easy to get out of control," he says. "The quality's not so good."
If staying small keeps the food as delicious as it is, we'll gladly put up with "The Bold and the Beautiful."