To many New Yorkers, the neighborhood of Brighton Beach remains a complete mystery, but it's one which every real New Yorker should make an effort to explore. There is so much to take in, starting right from the moment you descend from the Q train station, where you’ll be greeted with sights of Soviet babushki strolling with their American grandchildren, fruit stands on top of fruits stands, a view of the nearby beach, and lots of Russian food.
Due to its extreme winters and historically institutional poverty, the cuisine of Russia consists mainly of meat, potatoes and cabbage, prepared in various ways; Russian cooks are famous for stretching small amounts of food to feed many hungry mouths. Other Soviet cuisines, like Ukrainian, Georgian and Uzbek, have also influenced what we know today as Russian food, and you can taste it all on Brighton Beach.
But before venturing out into this strange land, know that small talk and other gestures that are generally considered a part of ‘good service’ are not to be expected in the neighborhood. A Russian person is unlikely to do so much as smile at you without a proper reason. If a salesperson or waiter appears crass, don’t take it personally—it’s a cultural thing.
To visit Brighton Beach without eating a pirozhok (Russian for “little pie”) would be a crime. Pirozhki (plural) are deep-fried pockets of pillowy yeasty dough, filled with meat, potatoes, cabbage or, my favorite, mashed green peas. They can also be sweet, filled with apples or cherries, and dusted with powdered sugar.
If pirozhki are too bready for your liking, try a chiburek instead. This is something like a Central Asian empanada—a deep-fried thin pocket of dough stuffed with spiced ground lamb and onions. The street vendor located between Brighton 6th and 5th streets sells the best pirozhki, at $1-2 apiece. The perpetual line of hungry customers makes her stand hard to miss.
Next, you’ve got to get yourself some varenyky, which are Ukrainian boiled dumplings filled with—surprise!—potatoes or cabbage, or potatoes and mushrooms. Most people know varenyky by their Polish name, pierogi. These scrumptious little guys are typically served with tons of fried onions, tossed in the oil the onions were cooked in (and/or butter), alongside sour cream.
Pelmeni are another popular dumpling option. These are filled with ground meat—either veal, beef, pork or chicken. You can sample these classic comfort foods at Oceanview Cafe or Cafe Glechik. Other popular items to try are beef Stroganoff and meat blintzes, and don’t forget those sides of buckwheat kasha and fried potatoes with mushrooms.
If you’re in the mood for seafood apres-beach, head over to Kebeer Cafe—a beer bar serving standard Russian and Central Asian fare—and order the garlic and herb shrimp along with your brew. What you’ll get is a generous platter of shrimp, boiled with their heads and shells still attached, then tossed in a garlic-herb white wine sauce. You behead and peel them as you eat, which is a very rewarding, Hemingway-ean experience.
To satisfy a sweet tooth, check out La Brioche Cafe for Russian cakes, pastries and cookies galore, which are sold by weight. The custard-filled profiteroles, Napoleon cake and Smetannik cake (a honey-sweetened cake layered with a sour cream-based frosting) are must-trys.
Before heading back, stop by Brighton Bazaar and pick up some food to go. They boast extensive hot and cold prepared food buffets, freshly baked breads, meats (kielbasa!) and cheeses, Russian beer, and other specialty items.
Oceanview Cafe: 90 Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11235
Cafe Glechik: 3159 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11235
Kebeer Cafe: 1003 Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11235
La Brioche Cafe: 1073 Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11235
Brighton Bazaar: 1007 Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11235
Alexandra Shytsman was born in Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn. A longtime blogger, she shares recipes, restaurant recommendations, and how-to's on her site, chezsasha.com. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.