By A.H. Avouris
Nowhere in Brooklyn is there a more foreign enclave than Brighton. Under the elevated tracks of the B and Q, caressed by sea breezes, the sidewalks of Brighton Beach Avenue vibrate with a cacophony of voices: the Russian of women hawking pastries, the English of sand-seeking day trippers, the hum of shoppers hailing from Omsk to Kiev. It’s a village within a city, a parcel of blocks in which you’re less likely to be addressed in English than not, and more likely to find rounds of blood sausage than packages of Johnsonville Brats.
It didn’t begin this way. Brighton was originally developed as a beach resort in the 1860s, named “Brighton” after its British counterpart, and filled with grand hotels and clubs. In competition with its less-distinguished neighbor, Coney Island, Brighton put on world-class concerts and horse racing; by the early 1900s, it had built a boardwalk with a Wild West show and elephants.
The boardwalk burned; no word on what became of the elephants. Shortly thereafter, Brighton was connected to Manhattan via the subway system, and development boomed. During and after World War II, the neighborhood grew with an influx of refugees from Europe, and a second wave in the 1970s of both Russian and Ukrainian Jews cemented Brighton as the “Little Odessa” it is today.
On a sunny Saturday Brighton’s streets are gridlocked with locals running errands and sunburned beach bound visitors hunting for lunch. Shops can be overwhelming; bringing your friend’s Russian grandmother is highly recommended. Russian and Eastern European expats don’t often conform to the practice of dual-language ingredient lists, so without assistance, you’ll be often be left staring helplessly at jars of unknowable brown goop, packages of white powder labeled seemingly at random with pictures of happy steers, and candies in indistinct flavors. A sense of adventure is useful, along with a flexible palate.
For a short walking and eating tour, follow Brighton Beach Avenue from Ocean Avenue to Brighton 3rd Street. With a little perseverence, you’ll go home much richer than you came.
Pick up Ukrainian vodkas at L’Chaim (127 Brighton Beach Ave) in flavors like hot pepper and birch (made from the buds, leaves, or sap of the birch tree), as well as wheat and rye vodka. Ukrainian fruit wines in flavors like sour cherry and white plum are also available, along with Armenian pomegranate wine and other rarely-seen grape wines.
The largest market along Brighton Beach Avenue, M&I International Foods (249 Brighton Beach Avenue)
is worth the subway ride alone. Everything from
raw meat to bulgar is sold, but the store’s smoked fish selection is unsurpassed, with whole brown carcasses frozen in lifelike positions and piled under glass for drooling customers. Their prepared foods are equally toothsome, and Moscow Brown Bread is a steal at $2.29 a loaf. Come here for jars of ajvar
, a Serbian red pepper spread delicious with eggs and cheese, as well as icing-heavy pastries, Ukrainian seltzer, blood sausage, imported beer, and Russian fermented kvass
soda, made with yeast.
One block down from M&I, Gold Label (281 Brighton Beach Avenue)
also has an impressive selection of fresh and dried sausages, beef fat by the pound, farmers cheese, pierogi, preserved fruits, packaged cookies, and Georgian seltzer, as well as Ukrainian pear soda and more varieties of kvass
“bread soda.” A formidable woman in a window to the street offers fresh pastries; a semi-sweet roll with poppy seeds makes a nice snack.
Not quite in line with its neighbors, the Turkish-influenced Vintage Food Corp. (287 Brighton Beach Avenue) is nevertheless worth a stop. Loose nuts and dried fruits, tea, halvah, fermented carrot drinks, imported honey, preserves, Turkish puddings, phyllo dough, and Turkish cheeses fill its shelves. Tiny green bottles of Sarikiz mineral water are refreshing on a hot day.
Taste of Russia (219 Brighton Beach Avenue):
Smaller than its neighbors, Taste of Russia offers plenty of offal—tongue, liver, massive calves trotters—to its customers. Come here as well for Hungarian white cheese, fresh prepared foods, and loose candies.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, avoid the boardwalk strip and head instead to Varenichnaya (3086 Brighton 2nd Avenue)
for its signature vareniki
(beef, fried cabbage, potato and mushroom, or cottage cheese) or pelmeni
, both types of dumplings served in buttery broth with a frizzle of onions or sour cream (pictured). With herring salad, homemade borscht, kompot
(a fruit drink), fresh bread, and succulent kabobs, the menu is simple but hearty. Definitely bring your own vodka.
Still not enough? Well, “Are you a super outgoing and fun-loving Russian-American?” Are you the “opposite of camera-shy”? Well you’re in luck, as casting continues for Brighton Beach
, otherwise unofficially known as the Russian-American Jersey Shore. If you must, look for The Ukrainian Situation at Tatiana (3152 Brighton 6th Street)
this winter. Until then, stick to the beach.
This post was updated Spring 2012.