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.
The Ginchermans, who are in their 60s, left their home in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1989, during the collapse of the Soviet Union into independent nations. Gregory was a civil engineer, Ludmila a nurse. Her cousin lived in Seattle and gave them a reason to land here. Other family members followed. The Ginchermans raised their children here. Gregory’s engineering degree was recognized in the U.S., but because of his age (then 48), his struggle to speak English, and because he measured in metric units, no one would hire him, he said. So he took a job as the super of an apartment building. Ludmila cooked in a nursing home. It took them seven years to save up the money to open the store.
Half of his customers are Russian, Gregory said, a fourth American, and another fourth from other Eastern European countries. He stocks all kinds of smoked fish and meat, spices, confections, grains, canned goods, Czech beer and Romanian wine. Among the more unusual items in the deli case is salo, the Russian version of Italian lardo, basically cured pork fat, spread over bread like butter. The store also carries Russian greeting cards and videos. The dining room was added after the store, starting as one table and growing each year to its current size along with the store’s reputation among homesick Russians.
According to the 2000 U.S. census, about 4 million Americans are of Russian ancestry. Most of them reside in the Northeast, about 100,000 in Washington state. Seattle’s Russian community is difficult to categorize. Many started their new lives in the University District, Gregory said, drawn there by the university. Some are highly educated, finding a place in the region’s high-tech industry. Some own businesses, some earn a living in real estate or construction. Some live to the north and south of the city, some on the Eastside. He and Ludmila first settled in Northgate before moving to Bothell.
“You cannot really say where the Russian community is in Seattle,” he said.
A typical European Foods customer was probably born in Russia, like Eugene Zarakhovsky, 30, a software engineer, who coincidentally grew up in Kiev, blocks away from the Ginchermans. He shops and eats regularly at European Foods, where the food reminds him of home. “My grandmother worked, and she cooked every day,” he said. “She could make a meal for a dozen people on short notice. She took careful notes on every dish she made. Every Russian woman (of her age) knew how to cook like this.
“We didn’t go out to restaurants because there really weren’t any restaurants. The tradition was to eat at home.”
The cold dishes, the cured meat and salads, Zarakhovsky said, rather than the hot entrees, were the centerpiece of the meals he remembers. Dishes were typically made from ingredients that kept well, or could be easily made from leftovers like potatoes or peas. Cabbage and root vegetables prevailed in the cooking because of Russia’s harsh climate and the inefficiencies of transportation that made fresh or perishable foods harder to come by.
The overlap is significant between Russian food and the foods of Russia’s neighbors, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia. Theirs is a heavy cuisine, savory and hearty, generous with starch, meat, and dairy, its flavors low-pitched, food well suited for cold weather.
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