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
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 “
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,
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.
“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.
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
And then, of course, there are the perogies. Some stores have a large freezer section dedicated to many different varieties in bags. A
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
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!”
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!