Wharton: Savoring Russian foods in Salt Lake City
Sampling new ethnic foods can be a culinary adventure. If you look close enough in the Salt Lake Valley, you can usually find a small store, deli or restaurant that fits such a niche.
But, using a recommendation from a longtime friend, I had to search a bit harder than normal to find the Luybochka Cafe and Deli at 949 E. 3300 South.
The building that houses the establishment that specializes in Russian ethnic foods looks almost abandoned, with the storefronts on the first floor empty. A small sign points upstairs to a nail shop and deli next to each other. They are owned and operated by Naum and Luypochka Shkrab.
It was worth the search.
"People find us by the Internet," Naum explained.
Naum, a friendly man with a closely trimmed mustache and thick accent who migrated to the United States from Moldova in the 1990s shortly after the Soviet Union broke up, took time to patiently explain the different products he carries. He has been at this location for 12 years.
It was a bit early for the lunch crowd, so he had time to bring out some of the specialties he serves in the small, spotless seating area. These included borscht, a traditional Russian soup; pirogis, a pastry stuffed with meat; blintzes with meat or cheese; pemeni, a dumpling with meat; and vareniki, a dumpling with potato.
Then there are sandwiches, made with special Russian mayo on dark rye bread imported from New York that often include freshly sliced Russian cheese that tastes a bit like Havarti and different types of meat including Russian bologna, knockwurst and a garlic-infused meat that was delicious.
So where did Naum learn to make these delicacies? He almost laughed when I asked him.
"Of course, my mom made me some," he said. "My grandma. Everybody in Russia made them. People make a lot of pelmeni. In Russia, that's number one. It's easy to cook. You don't need to spend a lot of time."
My friend Nancy Melich, who told me about Luybochka, said she discovered a homemade farmer's cheese she vaguely remembered from her youth. When I mentioned this, Shkrab smiled, went to a refrigerated case and pulled out a container of the cheese, offering a sample. It tasted like a rich cream cheese.
That got me looking at some of the other items in the store, including imported Russian juice, tarragon- or pear-flavored carbonated drinks, kefir that is like buttermilk, cream cheese from Finland, and special Russian butter and sour cream. Kvas, a Russian drink that comes in a large bottle, is made from rye.
"It tastes like root beer, only a little different," Naum said.
Do you carry caviar?
"Of course!" he said with a laugh, grabbing a $70 4-ounce bottle of black caviar but saying a red variety is available for only $8.
He also offered a sample of halva, a delicacy that came in a huge block. It is made from crushed sunflower seeds with a slight touch of sugar. It was so delicious I bought some to take home.
I loved looking at the different types of teas, coffees, candy and Russian versions of Jell-O, ketchup and mayonnaise.
There were Russian books, traditional wooden toys, greeting cards and CDs for sale. A dried fish and garlic hung from the ceiling.
I left amazed at the different tastes I had sampled, looking forward to eating the wonderful-tasting sandwich I took to work.
Most important, Naum made me feel like a welcomed friend, though we had just met. Since the little store and deli is near my mom's house in my old neighborhood, I suspect I will be returning soon.