Ever had that feeling like you have landed in The Twilight Zone? Like you took a step through the looking glass into the world that is backwards and nonsensical? Nothing looks different, yet everything is completely out of whack? I took the tour of The Twilight Zone on my recent romp around New York City. Now, I am pretty worldly. I have seen and experienced a lot of things and places and people. It takes some doing to render me speechless. The best of Manhattan and Brooklyn have felt like second home to me. Until now. Want to feel like a foreigner in your own land? Take a trip to the place that time forgot? All it takes is a ride on the “Q” train across Brooklyn. Welcome to Brighton Beach.
Brighton Beach is the neighborhood of extremes. A lovely beach front boardwalk and stunning ocean views give way to dingy storefronts and crowded corners of Brighton Avenue. Luxury SUVs worthy of movie stars share the road with broken down hoopties held together by duct tape and prayers. Perfectly manicured women dripping in diamonds brush past the frumpy elderly matrons slowly making their way through the streets. You maybe wondering what inspired my trip to Brighton. Here, you see, is where my countrymen roam in their almost native habitat. Here the street and shop signs are spelled in Cyrillic. The smells, the sights, the flavors are all too familiar, as my mind travels down memory lanes of my childhood. The “Q” train has taken me to New York’s version of Russia. I have to be honest, I found the atmosphere unsettling. People of Brighton Beach, would it kill you to smile at one another? My companion and Brooklyn host, the fabulous Vittles Vamp wondered the same thing (see her blog post Wearing a Smile in Brighton Beach). But I didn’t come here for the smiles of strangers. I came for the taste of my childhood. And THAT I found. In spades.
Taking this Serious Eats NY article as a guide, we roamed along Brighton Avenue. We blissfully munched on poppy seed filled pastry from Bakery La Brioche, a sublime memory of home that almost brought me to tears. I sought out “Belochka” and “Mishka Kosolapiy” chocolates (“Little Squirrel” and “Pigeon-Toed Little Bear”, respectively, I kid you not!) that not only taste, but to this day STILL LOOK THE SAME, colorful wrappers completely untouched by time. While I don’t have a sweet tooth, the nostalgia of sweets of my childhood tugged at my heart strings. On Brighton, you could find all of the desserts on this list of top twelve Russian sweets and that is no small thing! At Gastronom Arkadia (literally translated Arkadia Grocery Superstore), we marveled at the prepared foods buffet, homemade blintzes and chicken cutlets and fried herring and stuffed cabbage among a hundred or so choices, in my modest estimation. Such sight would put any Russian in celebratory mood! This spread could easily be found at any Russian wedding feast, lasting several days. My countrymen do know how to party, that’s a fact.
Lunch plans landed us at Central Asian Cafe Kashkar, Brighton Beach rival of Chicago’s Jibek Jolu, one of my all time favorites. We feasted on Korean carrot salad (score one for Brighton), lagman noodles (score one for Chicago) and steamed meat-filled dumplings called manty, the rivals of which I haven’t encountered in this country. Behind us, a table of surly Russian men was discussing their own childhood nostalgia, washing “what has been” down with vodka. Surrounded by sour faces, I felt remarkably out of place, yet with a sense of belonging all at the same time. Go figure! Across the table, my lovely friends were beaming at me, enjoying a happily boisterous discussion of various types of dumplings and what spices went into that carrot salad. And just like that, my world was right side up again.
We left Brighton Beach carrying pastries and candy and sweetened condensed milk and whole whitefish. We rode the “Q” train back to where New York felt like New York and everything made sense again. Step back through the looking glass landed us back in Brooklyn, overlooking Manhattan. My curiosity satisfied, I am not sure when I might return to Brighton. I do, however, find a strange sense of comfort knowing that it’s there, only a subway ride away, any time I am in New York. Cheers to you, Brighton. Thanks for the memories.
Hungry for more New York City adventures? Check out my previous articles: FOOD FRIDAY: Mermaid O’Clock, FOOD FRIDAY: Brooklyn Love Affair, Ramble Worthy Bites: Lox, FOOD FRIDAY: Bright Lights, Bigger City.