The Shrinking (But Still Vibrant) WeHo Community Where Perogies Provide a Sense of Place

Stolichnaya Bakery

I live off Santa Monica Boulevard, between La Brea and Fairfax.  This tiny stretch of the boulevard is the heart and last bastion of a shrinking neighborhood — the only real Russian-speaking community in Los Angeles.  One by one, the Russian book and clothing stores, temples and churches, pharmacists, bakeries and trademark “Russian delis” are being replaced by trendy coffee shops and wellness yoga studios.

Once you get west of Fairfax, the turf belongs to the health conscious, young professional types by day, and the gay community by night.  If you are seeing Keto-inspired restaurants, gyms with all glass fronts where beautiful people are furiously stationary-biking (and somehow not sweating), bars with faux straw-roofs blasting hard Eurobeat out their open windows, and people are smiling for some reason even though there are no cameras around, you’ve gone too far.  If this is the case, just keep going until you get to the tall man that is wearing a matching wig, leotard, and heels combo in neon, who is dance-directing traffic with a dildo.  He will direct you back to the motherland. Just follow the dildo.  And no, you will never feel as happy or free as he does right now.

By contrast, looking east beyond La Brea is less interesting.  Most of the blocks have the “four lane street with tons of pot holes and strip malls/anywhere-LA” thing going on.  Some of the Chinese-run donut shops and payday loan joints have already been gobbled up by the latest iteration of the insipid gentrifying creep, which has spilled over La Brea and lurches its tendrils ever westward.  The historic Formosa bar has closed (soon to reopen), while a Trader Joe’s and two mixed-purpose high rises have gone up in the three years I’ve called this neighborhood home.  At this rate, it might only be five or 10 years before the center can no longer hold on the cultural gem that is our Russian neighborhood.

Karpaty’s meat and vegetable offerings

Despite being surrounded on all sides by stark financial and cultural disconnects, this tiny stretch of Santa Monica remains a real community for now.  The easiest and most worthwhile entry point to this fascinating community, and what will be highlighted here, are the tiny markets — the “Russian delis” as we call them colloquially.  If you frequent the area and don’t hail from the motherland, you probably know these dozen-or-so storefronts speckled along the boulevard as “those weird little stores with crazy names and cheesie prints of fruits pasted on the windows that you pass on the way to Whole Foods on Fairfax.”  And what a shame you do.

Sure, you won’t recognize a single item on the overflowing shelves (aside from what’s in the butcher case and the produce bins).  Ok, there may be an elderly Russian couple ahead of you that seems to be discussing each item in the butcher case in great detail before making any selections.  And yes, there is a small chance that the cashier who was so warm with the elderly couple in front of you turns colder than Victory Day in Moscow when you get to the counter.  But probably not.  In fact, in all my outings there is only one location where I’ve had a bad experience.  Then again, we’ve all had days where those with whom we interact likely took us for worse versions of ourselves.  Since there seems to be some measure of anxiety over this assumed cultural barrier, I’ll just tell you what happened.  it’s kind of funny anyway. 

So I’m walking through the door of a small market, which I won’t name but is on the south side of the street close to Fairfax, and I can immediately feel the mean mugging I’m getting from the burly older woman behind the counter.  I mean this woman could knock a shirtless Putin off his horse with this glare.  Ever the optimist, I proceeded and asked about some pastries behind the counter. 

“Could you tell me what’s in that one?”  I asked.

“Food” she blurted in a dry baritone.

“Um, ok.  Well maybe I’ll get some of that.  What is it called?”  I pointed to a potato salad looking dish.

“Food.” 

“Yea, I get that.  I’m just trying to understand what I’m buying here.”

“This food. All Russian food.  You don’t like Russian food, no problem.”

So yea, that was lame.  I may or may not have called her a big mean bitch on my way out.  In any case, that’s the worst that’s going to happen, and it probably won’t.  Most of the folks are helpful, forthright, fair and even kind.  And besides, you didn’t come for the conversation. 

What you did come for, firstly, is the bread.  In my extremely limited knowledge, the “meat and potatoes” for Russians is the “bread and potato vodka.”  If you are a fan of bread, there is a whole delicious world here for you to explore.  What’s more, a lot of the bakery products are homemade.  I don’t mean “homemade” like your $7 Whole Foods Paleo bar that is wrapped in brown construction paper and sealed with a sticker that looks like it was designed in Microsoft Word.  I mean homemade like food that is prepared by people within the community to feed people within the community.  People they care for intrinsically.  There are several dedicated bakeries, and all of the delis carry a selection of fresh bread that changes daily.  You can always count on finding several traditional styles of bread, as well as both sweet and savory a la carte pastries. 

Karpaty Deli

A highlight is the dark rye bread, which comes in small, dense loaves.  Don’t want to buy a whole loaf? Go to the refrigerator with the unmarked Tupperware containers that have things like fresh pickles, carrot slaw and anchovies.  Among them you will likely find a container stuffed with preserved eggplant, roasted pepper, carrot and herbs in olive oil.  Bring this home with your mini rye loaf and slather the sweet umami goodness on thin slices of the bread. You will wish you got two loaves. Or if you want to grab a quick lunch, snag a couple of the savory pastries (Bierock), which are filled variously with ground beef and onion, buttery mashed potato or mixed kraut.  Ask for descriptions.  Like the rest of us, the person helping you will likely be proud of his or her cultural cuisine, and happy to discuss it with you. Try a few different styles until you find one you really love.   Any bread you take home from these overlooked markets will be better than the mass produced nonsense you get from your big grocery store.

The same is true for the butcher selection, where the meats are sometimes even truly fresh (or so I’m told).  In case you didn’t know, the “fresh” stuff at the big stores that is sitting on crushed ice was frozen at some point, no matter where you go.  Regardless, you can always get good veal, lamb and pork chops, chicken, and for some reason, quail eggs.  A few markets have a notable selection of caviar, and several stock unlabeled Tupperware containers of cured salmon that is, well, probably the best lox I’ve ever had…  I can already hear Brooklyn mobilizing to put me up at the stake, but I’m standing my ground.  These are thick slices of buttery, fat marbled, semi-transparent salmon in a beautifully muted shade of pink-gray.  To venture a guess, the preparer starts with a quality fish, and uses less salt than most we have tasted in the past.  This leaves a texture and flavor about halfway between your bagel shop lox and a nice piece of sushi.  You’re welcome.

Even the produce is generally superior to the major stores, and comes with the added bonus of not having to navigate a labyrinth of grapefruit pyramids that were shipped from Taiwan because they are out of cycle.  There will always be some basics like onions, potatoes, garlic.  Beyond that, they simply carry what is in season.  This approach is, in my opinion, the easiest way to boost your chances of taking home something that is locally grown and fresh.  Sometimes you can even find interesting and succulent varietals of things like grapes or cherries that you have yet to encounter.  

And then, of course, there are the perogies.  Some stores have a large freezer section dedicated to many different varieties in bags.  A couple spots have whole freezers full of the morsels naked, for a fun “scoop your own” pierogi experience.  You can’t go wrong, but if you find an unlabeled bag with veal pierogies, snag that.   When you get them home, simply caramelize some onions in oil, then use the same pan to brown both sides of the dumplings from frozen, covering after the first side is done.  Now bust out that fancy mustard that’s been on your fridge door for six months, and get to work!  The pleasure of good perogies is akin to any good dumpling: the whipped, garlic-heavy potato filling, or a bit of hot, vinegary, aromatic broth that has completely saturated the mini meatball inside, bursting out exuberantly when you bite through the chewy pelmeni dough.  Since this experience is compromised by puncturing the shell during preparation, it is a major faux paus in Russia to serve perogies that have been damaged.  In fact, a mandate exists to this day which states that any persons responsible for serving a broken perogi to a state official shall henceforth be served only watered down vodka — a punishment so crushing that some proud Soviets have chosen to end their own life rather than bare the humiliation… Ok, I made all that up.  Just don’t break the perogies.

When you bring your cache to the counter, the cashier will likely be peering down from between towers of foreign-looking candies and snacks.  Similar novelties will be crammed on every shelf in the place.  If you’re adventurous like me, you will start a mental list of all the new treats and snacks you want to try.  Some are super tasty and interesting, some are siblings to products from the great American snack pantheon, and some are meh.  I should mention that, in my humble opinion, one of the things these good folks haven’t quite figured out yet is chocolate.  I’ve given up on trying to buy anything with chocolate in it from these bakeries and markets.  In any case, it’s remarkable the selection that is crammed into these tiny stores.  I still discover new things I want to try every time I visit my personal  favorite — a shoebox-sized joint called Karpati deli on the northside of SMB at Gardner.

In the interest of brevity, I won’t go into detail about the dedicated bakeries, aside from telling you that the best one is called Stolichnaya Bakery.  This long-standing bakery is right next door to Whole Foods on Fairfax, in the same structure.  Inside, you will almost definitely find the hulking 60-something owner and head baker.  He will either be eating his own bread with coffee at the register while he watches a Russian TV broadcast, tending to the extensive stock, or berating one of the underling bakers. 

“I come to America 30 years ago and teach myself to make bread.  Real Russian bread,”  he will tell you.

 “Russian bread is best bread.  You think you need meat?  Look at me!” he says with a slap on his big belly.

 “I eat only bread.  You eat Russian bread, and you become big and strong like me!”

A plethora of choices at Stolichnaya Bakery

He is stern one moment, and suddenly smiling and full of mirth.  The man has his own signature style of yeast-free bread — a rich and dark, doughy loaf.  I always go in to get one or two things, and walk out with two big bags.  This is partly because there is a lot of good stuff, and partly because he is a phenomenal salesman.  Even in this high foot traffic location, where an expert baker is offering quality products made in-house, I can’t remember a time when I saw another non-Russian inside.  I think of all the hundreds of people buying bread right next door at Whole Foods every day, and can’t help but squirm a little bit.  In fact, I can’t remember seeing another “outsider” in any of these places, most of which I have visited many times.  

To give another example of this sad tendency, there is a trendy coffee shop directly across the street from Karpati deli that always runs out of pastries by around 3 p.m.  Pastries, I should add, that seem to come from the same distributor that serves oversized muffins and $5 donuts to all the trendy cafes.  No one from this coffee shop that runs out of food everyday walks across the street to the Russian place to replenish their stock.  I mean, forget whatever cultural hang ups you have for a second, and just consider that you make more money when you sell more food.  This cafe and others in the area are surrounded by fresh homemade products that lend a unique sense of place, but I doubt some of them even know it.  If they only introduced themselves to their neighbors, I’m sure mutually beneficial mini-partnerships could be forged.  Opening a business in a community with real culture,  I wish they would at least consider measures to make themselves part of the community, rather than just plopping themselves on top of it. 

I guess that is the heart of this whole thing.  All this talk about collusion, and here in WeHo, we can’t seem to make any happen even when we live right next door to one another.  We pride ourselves on our openness, acceptance and diverse culture here in Los Angeles.  Yet when the opportunity for those ideals lies just outside our bubble, they languish in ignorance.   Have you ever had an experience where engaging someone from an unfamiliar culture opens a new door to understanding?  One that grows and flourishes until it dwarfs the tiny step it took to initiate?  This is one of those opportunities, and it is fading.  Luckily In this case, breaking bread is literally as easy as opening the door and walking inside.  And it will be good bread.    

Of course, the situation doesn’t have to be about ideals.  It can just be about pierogies.  Or getting outside your comfort zone.  Or obtaining a little firsthand experience with a people who are constantly bombarded in the media, and seeing if your own experience matches up with your expectation.  Whatever reason you choose, do it before the next wave of overpriced, flavor of the week eateries takes over the whole bloc, as it were.  And again, for God’s sake, don’t break the pierogies.  I hope to see you there someday, and happy eating.  Proshchay, comrades! 

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Jordan Vincent
About Jordan Vincent
Jordan Vincent is a recording artist and author. He resides in West Hollywood with his wife, baby, and Boston Terrier.

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Travis
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Travis

I’ll take some pierogies but will have to pass on the rye bread, but will take some other breads, please! I live in San Diego but look forward to a little Russian visit next time I’m in LA! Thanks for sharing the article Jordan!

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

West Hollywood is clearly thriving. I am just talking about our selective blindness toward a specific segment of the community.

Patrick Moore
Guest
Patrick Moore

These little shops are part of what makes West Hollywood so weird and interesting. You can go anywhere in the country and have Starbucks but the small businesses that are scattered about in this little Los Angeles borough give west Hollywood depth and diversity. Every time I’m in the area I get excited and pick up a couple things from this bakery because I can’t get it anywhere else. Long live the small businesses!

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

You’ll be happy!

ZweetNZavory
Guest
ZweetNZavory

Nice article.
Ze best Russian bakery with the nicest people is on the south side of Santa Monica Blvd across the street from Whole Paycheck, i mean Whole Foods. Zey have sweets and savories sure to pleaze every palate.

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

Zanks! Yes, that one’s really good.

Awesome Weho
Guest
Awesome Weho

The staff in Russian shops are not rude. They’re what I would call brusk, which only makes me miss NYC, so I don’t mind it at all. Stolichnaya has a fantastic fresh baked buckwheat bread and apple strudel that are both gluten free. The guy who waited on me, my first time there joked, “see ya tomorrow” even though he’s never seen me before.

I’d much rather give these mom and pop stores my business than pretentious Whole Foods.

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

100%. Totally makes me think of/miss NYC too.

carleton croninc
Guest

I feel I must comment further about Russians. My contact with them began at a coal mine lease in Kirkenes ,Norway in 1953, thru an artistic association with Boris Goldovsky in Boston in 1958, to our Russian community in West Hollywood. They are the most intense people I have ever know and have characteristics ranging from the ridiculously boisterous to the darkest, moodiest state, of the sort which brought us the soulful poem, Babi Yar. Slavic people are not bashful, I have found, in expressing emotions or simple statements, all which can be interpreted as “rudeness” to our more delicate… Read more »

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

Thanks for this thoughtful contribution, Carleton! Well said. I, for one, appreciate the bluntness-especially against the ever present hollywood facade.

jimmy palmieri
Guest
jimmy palmieri

The absolute ignorance and rudeness I have experienced at these stores, (Ihave lived here since ’94) , prevents me from ever going into them. From bakeries, to deli’s to chachki shops, they seem to all have the same MO…..ignore anyone who isn’t Russian. In one store, I asked how much 2 glass (not crystal, just glass) shotglasses were and the lady barked out $200.00. For me, these places can’t close fast enough. I use one bakery, not because they are friendly, because they are not, but because I know what I want and don’t have to have any interaction except… Read more »

Catherine the Great
Guest
Catherine the Great

These folks were strangers in a new country. It is up to US to welcome them, make them feel at home and learn a few of their customs. What better way to do that than through the international hospitality of cuisine, deli’s and bakeries. I have enjoyed frequenting various ones for particular finds, made friends and always feel welcome. Every day starts out with a pot of delicious Tsar Nikolai Tea which everyone loves…..of the numerous blends.

Please try a bit of charm Jimmy and give it another go.

jimmy palmieri
Guest
jimmy palmieri

I taught russian immigrants in NYC, who were the displaced victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe. No other teacher would teach them. I didn’t speak Russian and they barely spoke english, although they did take ESL in the morning. I adored all of them, and they me. I had no preconceived idea of anything but kindness when I purposely wanted to support the russian owned stores and shops here. Sadly I have not experienced anything but rudeness. I even remember I was going to pay double for a mattress (the shop closed) so I would be supporting them. The woman would… Read more »

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

Kudos on the teaching bit.
Maybe they have softened a bit? I’ve been to pretty much all of them, and only had the one real problem.

ReCall Duran
Guest
ReCall Duran

HA! Now you know how gay women are treated by A LOT of gay men in WeHo! I think it’s a shame that you are this openly hostile towards the Russian community and probably haven’t taken a moment to consider where they have come from, what they have endured, and how scared of people like you they are. I, too, have not been treated with a little less overt welcome at some, NOT ALL, of these establishments (and I carry a Russian last name), but I realize that I am American and FOOLISHLY expect to be treated a certain way.… Read more »

carleton croninc
Guest

This is a most welcome piece from that part of the city which had been overwhelmed by all the noise from the west side. Our Russian community is as much a part of the city as any other segment. More! More ! There is life east of La Cienega.

Chef Bernie Guzman
Guest
Chef Bernie Guzman

Liked the article .
I did visit a few of the Russian stores..but the rudeness I’ve experienced is the result of their own demise.
A good product & people skills go a long way.
The bakery next to whole foods.. isn’t the cleanest, bugs flying inside the bakery display counter. They are helpful in my experience.
I just don’t go there anymore.

If they would have been advised to educate themselves in manners & environments as well as money.

The business owner is just as much a product as the items they sell.

D
Guest
D

Ok. I’m getting off my high horse and giving the bakery a go. Thank you or writing this.

TC Danbert
Guest
TC Danbert

Ironic that a straight man is writing about the decline of West Hollywood.

Jake Lee
Guest
Jake Lee

What’s “ironic” about it? West Hollywood was not always a “Gay City”. In fact, West Hollywood is only about 40% Gay and Lesbian so where is the “irony”? Sounds like you might have a problem with diversity.

John Fitzgerald Keitel
Guest

Jake, This reminds me of my dear, departed father and the most useful piece of advice he ever gave me. I was in college and we were driving around San Francisco, when he said, “John, you want a good investment? Find out where the gays are moving and buy real estate.” I could be wrong, but I think TC’s comment is more quip than sobriety — a witty way of marking our City’s short but marching history. Regarding that history, before The City of West Hollywood was founded, the area we call home was an unincorporated part of Los Angeles… Read more »

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

Thank you very much for this thoughtful and enlightening reply! Awesome cliffs notes history lesson for a transplant like me.

Jordan Vincent
Guest
Jordan Vincent

West Hollywood is obviously thriving. Im commenting on the selective blindness toward a very specific segment of our community.