The Epicurean: Hidden Hometown Treasures

Matt Segall, Columnist

This is a biweekly column highlighting our local culinary scene. Restaurant reviews, research, interviews, recipes and more will all come together in order to identify what makes the Cleveland experience unique.

For the most part, eating out in Oberlin is not a memorable experience. That’s why, in my coverage thus far, I have focused on dining establishments outside of Oberlin. We are lucky to be in an area with such a rich history, which is quickly achieving national recognition not just for food, but for art, music and sports — we’re looking at you, LeBron. Get out to Cleveland and take advantage of what the city has to offer! However, even in the small town of Oberlin, there are some standout dishes that deserve our attention.

My favorite dish can be found at the frequently disparaged Lupita’s. While they are lauded for their $1 margarita nights, the food has never received much praise. I’ll admit, some of the other dishes I have tried have been less than stellar. But the carnitas are always magnificent. Traditionally, carnitas consist of pork that is slowbraised until tender, like pulled pork, and then fried until crispy. Lupita’s sticks pretty close to the standard preparation but chops their meat into delectable nuggets of crispy, tender pork perfection. The queso dip with chorizo is quite a tasty way to start the meal, and the homemade churro is a more than acceptable way to finish. I also appreciate the conservative hospitality. You get exactly what you ask for, and fast, but they will not check up on you every 10 minutes.

Another less-than-renowned Oberlin establishment, Mandarin, cooks my second-favorite dish. Again, most of their menu items are completely underwhelming, often consisting of massive hunks of meat and onion and bell pepper in a sweet brown sauce. But their salt and pepper pork chop is something magical. Chunks of bone-in pork chop are batter fried, then tossed in chilis and crispy garlic. The result is salty, spicy, garlicky pork nubbins. Oberlin’s restaurants seem to have a way with crispy pork dishes.

Everyone flocks to the Feve for burgers, but the Black River Café has a much better iteration. Every Feve burger I’ve tried to enjoy is dense and dry. The elaborate toppings seem to be there to cover up the taste and texture of mediocre meat. Quality meat in a burger is step one. Black River uses fresh ground beef that can be cooked to temperature, as opposed to the Feve’s mandatory well-done. Black River’s brioche bun holds up much better to the juicy meat. Their hand-cut fries are crisp and plentiful, but anything would taste amazing with their malt vinegar aioli.

Kim’s Grocery and Carryout is my treasure. Hidden behind the Slow Train Café, the restaurant is overlooked by many coffee-deprived students. The $5 lunch bowl specials are tasty and satisfy almost any appetite but are not balanced with anything green. The real star is the bibimbap — the crown jewel dish of Korean lunch spots. Seasoned rice is topped with varieties of cooked and pickled vegetables neatly organized around the bowl. It comes with bulgogi — barbecued beef — but there is also a vegetarian option. The pièce de résistance is the fried egg on top. The sweet and salty beef, the bright pickled vegetables, the savory and earthy sautéed vegetables and the rich coating of the egg yolk all coalesce in delicious culinary synergy.

It is important to realize that Oberlin represents a unique economic market. Because it is such a small town, there is not as much competition as there is in urban environments. This means that businesses do not have to maintain as high a level of quality and service to stay profitable. But seek out these dishes, and some faith in Oberlin’s culinary scene just might be restored.