When I walked through the door of European Foods, a combination grocery store and restaurant on Aurora near 135th Street, on a recent afternoon, nothing happened. I stood there for about a minute, looking into the dark dining room and wondering if I was in the right place and whether, in fact, European Foods was actually open. (I was and it was.)
After a few moments, owner Gregory Gincherman emerged from behind a set of shelves stocked with Georgian wine and Polish and Latvian beers, his eyes peeking over the top of his glasses. Standing in front of the refrigerated cases holding meat products like smoked veal tongue and cured back fat (which was translated from Russian as "Superpork"), Gregory looked at me and asked warmly and simply, "You are hungry?"
I replied, "yes," and he led me into European Foods' restaurant, a room that was empty and dim. (The dining room lights remain off until a customer sits down to eat—an admirably practical move.) While there are just a few two-tops and one four-top, the room is actually quite big. Looking down, I realized I was standing on a dance floor; up above, the ceiling was covered in an unusual glossy red lacquer. It's a quiet space, one that seems to be waiting for a party to happen. Turns out the restaurant doubles as a banquet room where members of the local Russian community throw parties that Gregory and his wife, Ludmila, host and cater.
The menu—filled with appetizers like "red caviar on white bread" and "herring under vegetable coat," and entrées like borscht, goulash, and vareniki—specializes in home-style Russian and Slavic dishes, all cooked by Ludmila herself. She is also the restaurant's only server. When I asked her what I should order, she minced no words: "Everything is good." Then she said the mushroom soup is her favorite.
You should definitely order the mushroom soup ($3.99 for a half order, which is a very generous bowl)—a deceptively plain-looking mix of barley and diced potatoes dotted with big, meaty chunks of earthy mushroom and topped with a dollop of the thickest, tangiest sour cream I've ever tasted. Cooked barley will never win any beauty contests, but it possesses the wondrous ability to thicken a soup better than any other grain. And the longer it cooks, the more satisfying and silky a soup becomes.
On its own, Ludmila's mushroom-barley soup is a long-simmered dream, but its texture is made even better by that rich sour cream—so dense and impenetrable that it refuses to melt, even as it floats on top of hot liquid.
Every meal at European Foods is served with a red plastic basket filled with slices of dense, caramel-colored rye bread that the Ginchermans order from a German bakery in Vancouver, British Columbia. It's delicious, and made even more so when slathered with the cold, sweet butter that accompanies it. It makes the perfect companion to soup, and also Armenian eggplant salad ($3.99)—smoky, roasted cubes of eggplant mixed with bits of crunchy walnut and pungent diced garlic. The salad is brightened with a bit of vinegar and plenty of fresh dill and parsley.
Piroshki ($2.49)—which come filled with either sautéed cabbage or moist, finely diced, and peppery chicken—aren't the same baked savory treats you'll find at places like Piroshky Piroshky around town. Instead, they're fried, like savory doughnuts—airy, fluffy, and just a bit oily. They're listed under appetizers, but one piroshki paired with a bowl of soup could fill you up for an entire afternoon.
For an entrée, look no further than the cabbage rolls ($7.99)—squat parcels of ground pork wrapped in cabbage leaves and served in a light sweet-and-sour tomato sauce, topped with sour cream. The cabbage, which tasted more vinegary than I was expecting, held up nicely rather than falling apart, making it especially satisfying to slice through with a knife. When I asked Ludmila if she had pickled the cabbage, she gave me a firm "no," but offered that she uses ketchup in her tomato sauce.
The pelmeni ($6.99)—small dumplings filled with pork—are fine, but I suspect they are the same ones that you can buy frozen in bags by the front door of the market. Despite the fact that they come with sour cream, you're better off ordering the food that Ludmila makes with her own hands.
Everything about European Foods feels sensible and practical. The Ginchermans are welcoming and kind, but they save conversation for the slow but steady stream of regulars—mostly older Russians—who have probably been shopping at the market for the almost 18 years that it's been open. Gregory walks with them through the store, acting as a personal shopping guide to the various products from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, and other Eastern European countries, helping them find the exact tea they are looking for, or picking out bright, individually wrapped candies for them from clear plastic bins.
Last week, as I sat in the otherwise empty dining room sopping up the last bits of mushroom soup with rye bread, I found myself leaning back in my chair, peeking out into the market, trying to overhear the conversation between Gregory and an older woman who had come in for smoked meats. They spoke freely and animatedly in Russian, and I desperately wished I could understand what they were saying. I settled for feeling lucky that European Foods exists and that I could have just a taste of this world.