Consider the greatest boulevard in Seattle, by all the names we know it: Aurora, Highway 99 or just 99, Pacific Highway at its latitudinal extremes. It feeds the city’s industrial bowels and brushes past its important institutions, the stadiums, the current headquarters for Starbucks, and the future headquarters of the Gates Foundation.
It can take you to the city’s historic heart, or to its waterfront, and to its toniest neighborhoods. It gives up majestic views without demanding recognition. As you are propelled over water with mountain ranges beyond, you are simply on the viaduct, or the bridge. No towering spires or golden gates, just the concrete barrier that divides the flow of traffic.
The greatest boulevard is a humble one.
Aurora lacks the planted median that would officially qualify it as a boulevard, but on its 35-mile journey from White Center to Everett, it becomes just about every other kind of road: an expressway, an elevated freeway, even a parkway as it bisects Woodland Park and curls around Green Lake.
Eventually it becomes a controlled arterial of billboards, stoplights, cheap motels, car lots, and strip malls, the kind of street a city’s residents use all the time but are hardly proud of. It is a roadway known to be favored by prostitutes, jumpers, and bus-dodging jaywalkers. It is not a street to brag about like Madison Street or First Avenue or Ballard Avenue.
And unlike those streets, Aurora is not known for its great restaurants (Canlis being one exception), although I will attempt to make its case here, keeping in mind that when serving a delicious meal, the real challenge is to do it while charging $6 for a plate of food, not $30.
Cities all have a street like Aurora: long, chaotic yet uniform, ever-changing, beautiful and dirty in unequal parts; in other words, democracy on asphalt. These kinds of streets tend to attract strip-mall businesses run by immigrants because the rent and barrier to entry is low. Strip malls are vilified, but in the era of corporate conglomeration, they are the last bastion of the commercial enterprise affectionately known as the mom-and-pop.
In one particular strip mall at the intersection of Aurora and North 135th Street, Gregory and Ludmila Gincherman’s grocery and restaurant, called European Foods, sits at the feet of nearby giants — a Kmart, a Ross discount store, a Sam’s Club warehouse, and a Blockbuster video outlet. The Ginchermans’ immediate, strip-mall neighbors are the kind of retail riffraff — there is a computer repair shop, a 99-cent store, a cigar and pipe store, and a Social Security office — that probably deter some diners. The restaurant’s generic name, European Foods, foretells nothing of the treasures served inside, true Russian home-cooking: pierogi (boiled dumplings filled usually with potato), blintzes, pelmeni (a sort of Russian won-ton), stuffed cabbage, piroshky (deep-fried fritters filled with cabbage or meat), cured meat, borscht, goulash, roasted suckling pig, and various cold salads of beets, potatoes, eggplant, and herring. Ludmila makes all of it from scratch. Astonishingly, most of the appetizers cost $4 or less; entrees are priced at an average of $6. A relative feast for six to eight people can be bought for less than $100.
The dining room, which seats about 50, can be reserved whole or in part. While the adjacent grocery is stark and utilitarian, the dining room makes an attempt at festive touches, with richly colored curtains and a glossy, plastic, wine-red ceiling. The space comes with its own audio equipment for the frequent celebrations held there. Ludmila’s cooking also can be catered.
Run by the couple for 12 years, European Foods arguably serves the best if not the only authentic Russian food in Seattle, in the manner Russians of an older generation are accustomed to. Modern Muscovites might have a different experience, but for anyone who grew up in Soviet Russia, dining out was not a casual habit. Eating and entertaining was typically done at home, with large platters of food and bottles of vodka. The cook was usually the family matriarch, and she was an expert by a relatively young age.
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