I wish I could take credit for finding the generically named but amazingly curated Russian grocery store European Foods at 13520 Aurora Ave. N. up in Haller Lake. Sadly, that credit goes to my brother, a Russian-history major and aficionado of all things Eastern European:
Mmm . . . Cured meats at European Foods.
Him: "I found a place you have to check out. I'm worried it's going to be a dark, scary, little place, but it sounds decent in writing."
Me: "Well, it has a website--that says something."
Him: "As long as it's not like the deli in The Sopranos where they use the bone saw to dismember people and still serve the public while holding Mafia meetings."
Me: "I'll keep you posted."I'm happy to report that while European Foods is indeed a dark, little place, it's not that scary. In fact, there was not a bone saw in sight. The Russian grocery and restaurant is located in an inconspicuous strip mall, complete with the requisite vacant-looking Blockbuster, in the northern part of the city that so resembles the suburbs. From the outside, the shop looks closed--possibly permanently--but the door opens and inside I'm greeted by the sound of a corner TV blaring Russian soap operas, and an older gentleman having a heated debate on the phone that I cannot understand. I spend my time wandering the aisles: Half the space is a very traditionally decorated restaurant that looks straight out of Yaroslavl, while the other is a mix of refrigerated cases holding cured meats and pickled fish (all labeled only in Cyrillic), whole cakes, Euro-style butter and sour cream, and a few tall shelves of canned and dry goods from Mother Russia, including a wide assortment of canned tiny fish and bags of that super-dark, impossibly dry bread favored in former Soviet countries. There are a couple of shelves of movies and a few books for good measure.
When Angry Russian Owner finally gets off the phone, we have an awkward conversation in which I try to tell him I want to order takeout, he looks at me without blinking, and finally yells for a girl named Masha, who rushes out from the back. Though there is a printed menu at the entrance to the restaurant portion of the space, it appears many of these items can also be found in a back refrigerated section Masha leads me to--a goldmine of cabbage rolls, beet salad, sweet or savory blintzes, and stuffed red peppers. I choose a small bit of each, plus an order of vareniki (Russian dumplings stuffed with mashed potatoes) that I learn come from the freezer case in front, and a container of borscht. Angry Russian Owner turns into Super Friendly Russian Owner when he realizes I'll happily throw down $30 on a smorgasbord of goodies that I haven't had since my trip to Moscow last summer, and he throws in a hot-from-the-fryer piroshky. Which he insists I eat while he's bagging my loot. To drink, I grab a bottle of kvass (a strange fermented beverage made from rye bread) on my way out.
The delicious, warm, meat-filled piroshky has left me feeling a little like one of those pear-shaped matryoshka dolls, but I ignore the bowling ball in my stomach for the chance to sample some of the wares once I'm home. The borscht is a stand-out--chunks of potatoes, carrots, and beets swimming in fuchsia soup; it could have been bettered by a dollop of sour cream had I had some, but was just fine on its own. The cabbage rolls are tasty little rice-and-meatloaf parcels rolled in cabbage leaves, though the sauce on top tastes a little too much of ketchup. Since the vareniki require actual boiling and not simply microwaving, we save those for dinner--they're the best of the lot, perfect Eastern European comfort food, but I doubt they're made in-house despite the unlabeled plastic bag they came in.
The verdict? An awesome little shop that I will happily return to since it's seemingly the only one of its kind here, though the key, I think, is to dine in (they serve lunch daily, and dinner until 7 p.m.), then grab a bag of vareniki and a piroshky on your way out.