Some things don’t seem to change and sometimes that’s a good thing.
Technology, fashion trends, seasons, seasonal latte flavors, these are all things that can change. But my favorite Chinese buffet? I don’t mind so much if this stays the same.
In high school, the Highland Park area of St. Paul was the place to meet, at least for our groups of friends. Jake and I didn’t go to the same grade schools and wouldn’t meet for many years to come, but we both gathered at the Highland Park Perkins, Caribou, Jimmy John’s, and Cleveland Wok back in the day.
Finals week and that break between the ending of a school day were special times where we piled into someone’s car and headed to Highland Park. We like to imagine that we crossed paths at some point.
Tucked into a bustling corner along Cleveland Avenue, the Cleveland Wok is located near a few of my old favorite places. Some of the shops have come and gone, but many remain the same. This corner of the universe holds a lot of memories. I’m pretty sure that I first tasted fish sauce at Vina across the street and sweet potato fries at the Highland Grill next door.
The Cleveland Wok’s atmosphere is compact and cozy. You pay for your meal at the counter near the front door. And just as I remember, the bathrooms are located in a dim basement down a flight of narrow stairs. It’s a no-frills restaurant where food is the focus and service is warm.
I think we’ve always known that we could have ordered our own selection of dishes from a menu, but neither of us ever resisted the buffet’s call. The buffet is showcased by the front windows. Steaming hotel pans illuminated by the warm glow of heat lamps draw people in like the songs of the Sirens. However, I bet the buffet smells better than the Sirens’ songs sound, and the encounter doesn’t lead to danger; just a good meal.
It’s been years since we visited the buffet, close to a decade for me. Moving away made me realize how many places we took for granted because of their proximity. This time I got to enjoy a Tsingtao, unlike my high school and early college visits. The restaurant also offers a small selection of wines. The dinner buffet still costs less than $10. I don’t remember how much it cost back in the day, but even at just under $10, it’s still a steal.
Don’t go to the Cleveland Wok expecting a maze of 99+ items like some of the other buffets boast. Here, you’ll find a solid line-up of about 20 dishes. Bigger is not always better. At this petite buffet, everything tastes fresh and nothing sits too long.
Egg drop and hot and sour soups lead the way, followed by cream cheese wontons, fried rice, and wispy noodles stir-fried with cabbage. Next, you’ll find a variety of entrees and vegetable dishes such as sweet and sour chicken, Kung Pao chicken, mustardy shrimp, little fried shrimp coated in that sweet mayonnaise sauce, and sautéed mushroom quarters in oyster sauce.
And then there are my long-standing favorites which haven’t gone anywhere; Blistered green beans in garlic sauce and beef tossed with fried potato slices in oyster sauce taste as good as I remember.
Fried delights are plentiful. You could choose a meal composed entirely of fried doodads if you wanted, although there are enough options that you certainly don’t have to and I don’t particularly recommend it.
When we first arrived at the restaurant our friend greeted us by gesturing towards a plate of appetizers. “I selected some appetizers to share. Please, help yourself,” she joked knowing that we would all end up ordering the buffet. We helped ourselves to cream cheese wontons, eggrolls, and crispy chicken wings.
Those who leave room for dessert can enjoy little puffs of fried dough coated in sugar or enveloping fried banana slices. The buffet may offer additional sweets. We only leave room for one or two little fried doughnuts so they’re all we know.
After dinner, the guys nostalgically hit Tiffany’s for a drink while I followed the ladies on a detour to Patina. I oo’d and ah’d at Minnesota themed home decor and felt happy to be home.