Exiting the subway, it feels as though I’ve traveled farther than possible on one train. Mere steps into the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, snippets of Soviet languages assault the air, spoken mostly by aggressive salesman standing outside their shops. (I can only assume they’re advertising whatever’s sold within.) Densely populated by Russian, Ukrainian and Central Asian immigrants, Brighton Beach is a world of its own embedded in New York City.
Recently, a Russian acquaintance of mine mentioned her frequent trips to this immigrant enclave to stave off homesickness. Since my job restricts me from taking frequent vacations to far away places, I hoped that hitting up Brighton Beach would satisfy my itch to travel, at least temporarily.
Upon arrival, it becomes apparent that my friend is not the only immigrant to feel at home in the “Little Odessa by the Sea.” The neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Brighton Beach Ave., is a bastion of all things USSR. The shops stock everything from home cooked Russian meals to fur fashions straight from the streets of Moscow.
Eyes wide, I walk, tentatively, down the busy street. Eventually, I make it to the mega-market that is the St. Petersburg Bookstore, where I’m shocked to discover security measures similar to those I imagine were common throughout Russia prior to its fall. “No backpacks! No eating! No drinking!” barks a young blonde import with a stiff upper lip who proceeds to tail me. Uncomfortable at first, I forget about my surly new friend as soon as I spot an entire wall of matryoshka dolls. The meticulously crafted creations demand that I examine the details of their exquisite construction further. With purpose, I walk toward that wall—until an abrupt voice stops me. “No touching!” it reprimands before I can remove hand from pocket. Am I being singled out for looking so un-Russian, or are all Russian stores governed so strictly? With a sigh, I retreat into the Brooklyn cold.
Admittedly, my motivation to travel is typically food related, and this excursion into the depths of Brooklyn is no different. Continuing down Brighton Beach Ave., each step infused with the scent of saltwater air, I pinpoint a few ladies whose figures tell me they know where to eat. Through a combination of hand gestures and broken English, they direct me to two establishments known for serving authentic Old World dishes. At least, that’s what I think they tell me.
Home Made Cooking Café is exactly as I’d envisioned it: a large awkward formal space painted salmon and green, filled with plastic trees—décor du jour, circa 1979. Luckily, the food is more impressive than the atmosphere. To order, I point to the plates that look appetizing on an adjacent table. I end up with pelmini, the Russian version of tortellini, and Uzbek style pilaf piled high. One bite leads me to understand why the patrons at surrounding tables are busy shoveling the fare rather than conversing. The food is downright delicious. In one warm, savory mouthful of goodness with hints of sweet, my venture to Brighton Beach proves worthwhile. I stop myself from ordering everything else on the menu only because I have yet to check out Café Kashkar, the other restaurant recommended to me by the local ladies.
Café Kashkar is a tiny Uygur food shop, which, I am told, is the only one of its kind in the whole of New York. I have no idea what to order, but the cordial owner is very willing to guide me. At his behest, I sample naan and samsa, specialties of the house. The naan (a large round of dry tandoor bread) is nothing special. I’d take the Indian version over it any day. The samsa (lamb and onion stuffed dough pie), is thankfully better, but nothing that rocks my palate. They say that communism ruined food and if these are the highlights of Uygur cuisine, I can’t disagree.
Disappointed by my last stop, I decide to return to Manhattan. Dozens of elderly women wearing too much makeup and too many plastic hair accessories, men in tracksuits, and young things in endlessly high heels walk right along with me. Rather than entering the subway, however, they head straight inside the Brighton Bazaar. I can’t help but follow them. Inside, the smell of freshly cured fish and meats hits me hard, as does the aroma of sweet tomato laden cabbage rolls and freshly baked bread. Amidst the whirlwind of Bazaar activity, I note that the vodka section is packed with youngsters stocking up for the weekend. Though it’s the middle of the day, I approach the jovial bunch of vodka swiggers to ask where they’d go for an evening out on the town. Tatiana’s, a glamorous, gilded restaurant cum nightclub, is the unanimous response. On my next journey to Brighton Beach, maybe I’ll brave it.
Judging by the traces of Spanish and Brooklyn accented English, Brighton Beach may be in the process of changing. But for now, it remains a place where Soviet immigrants can grasp onto comforts from home, and a place where New Yorkers like myself can feel like they’re escaping.
How to get to Brighton Beach: Take the B train to the last stop, Brighton Beach. This should take about 40 minutes from just about anywhere in Manhattan, but plan for at least an hour each way since the B train can be incredibly unpredictable.
Home Made Cooking Café: 504 Brighton Beach Ave., (718) 934-4099, daily 9am-9pm
Café Kashkar: 1141 Brighton Beach Ave., (718) 743-3832, daily 9:30am-10pm
Brighton Bazaar: 1007 Brighton Beach Ave. (718) 769-1700, daily 9am-5pm
Tatiana Restaurant and Nightclub: 3152 Brighton 6th St., (718) 891-515, Sun.-Thurs. 12pm-1am, Fri. & Sat. 12pm-2am