Well, hours really these days. In the winter, Brighton Beach and its Atlantic winds can feel like a Siberian beach resort. Especially on frozen tundra days that sneak up at you without warning. You know, the days when you open the door to leave the house and before you know it, you are sliding down the stairs on your bum, and the streets are flooded with people lying on their back. Dont bother calling 911 if the person is awake since that is the first question they ask. So a fun Brighton Beach day is cut to a couple of hours in the winter where we do some quick shopping and beg restaurants to turn on the heat and invest in vestibules. Yes, new word for me too.
Rain or shine, or Sharknedo, the “Russian” neighborhood of Brighton Beach, along with Sunset Park are probably my favorite Brooklyn neighborhoods to explore. The borough may not be as diverse as Queens, but it has a remarkable number of distinct neighborhoods, led by these two. I will write in more detail about Sunset Park in the future, but today I will focus on Brighton Beach. Though if you happen to be a long time follower (many thanks to both of you), there’s not a whole lot new here. Ok, maybe just enough.
A recent influx of Uzbek and Georgian immigrants helped put the quotes in “Russian”. Although Russian is still the common language, its no longer the dominant cuisine. Even the food store “Taste of Russia” changed its name but that’s another story. Its not your grandpa’s Brighton Beach, and not even your dad’s. My old favorite dollar slice, back when dollar slices was not a thing because that was the price, is now a Starbucks. Getting a Knish is pretty much impossible these days. I used to sell them at Volna on the Boardwalk which quite remarkably still exists, especially considering every other space on the Boardwalk is owned by Tatiana today.
Speaking of Tatiana, a long, lazy lunch on the Boardwalk is something we dont do enough. Or pick up an oversized Shawarma sandwich at Little Georgia around the corner on Brighton 6th, sit on the boardwalk and watch the world go by. Who knows, you may even get invited to join the Babushkas of Garden of Joy (adult daycare). Outside the winter months, we dont miss a chance to walk the boardwalk halfway to Coney Island and back. But as a tourist you may want to walk the length and end your day there (or vice versa). On many summer evenings and Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, the boardwalk transforms into one heck of a Passeggiata.
Back to the Boulevard, just about every visit these days involves picking up frozen Pelmeni (Russian dumplings) at the Ukrainian long timer Ocean View Cafe. The pictures of Nicolas Cage on the walls are gone now, but long time patrons remember Lord of War. Over the years we switched from Siberian Pelmeni (veal, pork, beef) to chicken as the former started to taste too gamey for Mrs Z. You can obviously have them inside as well, along with a fine Borscht. Or at least as good as Borscht can get.
Ziggy’s Guide to cooking Pelmeni: The classic way: Boil for 8 minutes, add butter, a few splashes of red wine vinegar, black pepper. My way: Boil for 8 minutes, mix with a Chinese style dumpling sauce (I like this one along with Momofuku’s or better yet Fly By Jing Chili Crisp), top it with sauteed veggies like Cauliflower or Zucchini
Then its usually crossing the street for another long timer, Vintage Gourmet Specialty Food, or as we call it, “the chocolate store”. We pick up some Halvah, and chocolates that are either hard to find, or just cheaper than other gourmet markets. Back in the day the store was half the size today, although its not large by any means. My weakness is dark chocolate, preferably with pistachios, and the selection here is unmatched. But you also have a nice selection of Turkish delights (its Turkish owned after all), teas, spices, nuts, and much more.
The street crisscrossing here can be tiring as many drivers still confuse the boulevard for the French Connection chase location (It was actually filmed in Bensonhurst). That means its time for a snack. One of the things that hasnt changed much over the years is that you can still get street food off the street. The mini supermarket right next to Vintage, Gold Label sells meat and veggie filled Pirozhki from its window for as long as I remember. Its just a little tricky to time the freshness sometimes, as very few snacks are as satisfying (and cheap) as a fresh beef Pirazhok. For the similar but different Uzbek Cheburek, I would head to the corner on Brighton 5th, or better yet Kashkar Cafe on the “quiet side” of BB. More on this gem later. Golden Label is also the perfect size store to explore, especially the prepared items, and cakes. Say what you want about Russian food, they know how to make killer cakes.
From the old to the new, and a little detour. The Georgian bakeries and restaurants seem to be multiplying, not only in BB, but all over Brooklyn these days. 10 years ago, no one heard of Khatchapuri and Khinkali. These days you see these Khatchapuri love boats even in Manhattan. But the place that started it all is Tone Cofe on Neptune. Its one of the oldest if not the oldest Georgian restaurants in the city. And the first one to use a “Tone”, a Georgian oven where the dough is smacked inside by hand, and removed with a special stick. You can have a pleasant meal inside their adjacent restaurant, but these days we come to purchase their best in the hood Kharcho (Georgian beef soup), bread of course, and sometimes when we feel naughty, the regular pizza-like Khatchapuri, as opposed to Adjaruli Khatchapuri (cheese boat)
While less noticeable than Georgian and Uzbek, Brighton Beach also has a much bigger Turkish presence these days. If I have to name two things Russians love besides Russian food, its Sushi and Turkish. In some of the small supermarkets like Black Label you will often find a sushi chef doing his thing. And besides the delights of Vintage you also have the new Güllüoglu Baklava on Brighton 1st pl for more imported and homemade sweets. Vintage recently started importing artisanal Baklava from a top bakery in Turkey to intensify the BB Baklava wars. For kebabs or a more complete meal head to Beyti Turkish Kebab, one of the better lunch specials around.
Manhattan will soon get its first Tashkent Supermarket and the young professionals will soon learn about Plov, Samsa, Monti. and the consequences of going to an Uzbek super store hungry. In the original in Brighton Beach, I’ve had too many in and outs due to the crowds. On weekends they sometimes employ Japanese train pushers to move people by the Plov section. Hence I mostly shop at the less chaotic Ave Z location. They dont just have one kind of Plov (Pilaf), but a variety that covers every “Stan” kind. These days we lean toward the chicken plov, but the classic lamb and the rest are excellent.
Roughly half of my trips to Brighton involve a visit to Kashkar Cafe, one of my favorite restaurants in the entire city. Now that I no longer run food tours I can share all my secrets. One of which was a meal at Kashkar Cafe, the first Uyghur restaurant in NYC, maybe the US. Although its not much of a secret in NYC anymore, or even the world apparently. I ran into Fiona Shaw once on a tour here. Uyghur is essentially Uzbek on crack. In addition to Lagman soups (hand pulled noodles), expect a drier Geiro Lagman, and Juvova dumplings, the Uyghur answer to Pelmeni. Exceptionally fresh Cheburek (like a Pirazhok), Samsa, and really excellent kebabs. Homey, family operated places as such are increasingly hard to find in other parts of the city.
You are now in the “quiet side” of Brighton which has a much different feel since the subway is not hovering above, and businesses on only one side of the boulevard. But similar nut stores, buzzy bakeries like La Brioche, and gourmet supermarkets like Netcost are worth checking out. Or forget everything you read here, and just follow your nose and the crowds. You may bump into the same places, or maybe discover something I havent. At the end we’ll all agree that love it or not, there’s nothing like Brighton Beach in North America.