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Back in the USSR

Break out the vodka -- The Nightfly tours Houston's Russian-themed bars

Some years ago, Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas opened the Russian-themed Red Square bar to critical acclaim. Everyone seemed to think it was the cream of the crop -- everyone except a couple of retired servicemen who didn't think the proud statue of Lenin greeting them outside the doorway was very 'merican. Not long after that, others started to agree and the chorus grew louder. A month after opening, Mandalay management decided to take action by lopping the head off Lenin and putting it in their walk-in freezer. Everyone was happy.

Over the last few years, a couple of Sputnik spots have opened up in our fair city to nary a peep. Does this mean that Houston, among its other accolades, wins the dubious distinction of being less patriotic or politically aware than frigging Las Vegas? Not sure, but I've been sitting in the Russian Bear Restaurant and Bar for what seems like an eternity, and it's making my head swim with all thoughts Evil Empire.

How could it not? This place is the no-frills real deal. Owner Laura Popkov is crooning some Russian ditties to a jazzed-up middle-aged crowd dancing so dirty it would make Patrick Swayze blush. The large men surrounding the bar look as though they've just ended an exhausting day building tanks, bending sickles and training for the World's Strongest Man competition. They're drinking Corona, of all things, and smoking through hookahs. The swashbuckling Russian pirates darting in and out of the crowd are waiters and barbacks. The only things they're missing are swords.

The drink of choice at the Russian Bear: Corona, of all 
things.
Al Cameron
The drink of choice at the Russian Bear: Corona, of all things.

In short, this place is kicking my ass. I feel like I'm smack-dab in the middle of St. Petersburg, but in reality I'm in a Dairy Ashford strip center right next to a Dollar General Store. To enhance the experience, I order another White Russian (yeah, I know -- my girlfriend thought it was embarrassing too -- eat it!).

The good thing about the Russian Bear is, I don't feel creeped out about being here, which hasn't exactly been the case over the last couple of days during my tour of the rest of Houston's Russian-themed bars. Perhaps it's because I tend to overthink things, but it rubs me the wrong way that bars and clubs are using a culture as a theme. This isn't a Rainforest Cafe or an Aquarium. It cuts a bit deeper than that, doesn't it? Well, I'll push that thought out of my mind and suck it up. Break out the vodka!

On Thursday I begin my faux-commie junket at the Boaka Bar, which takes its name from a half-ass transliteration of the Cyrillic script's spelling of "vodka." Holy shit, that's clever. I order a vodka tonic and start scoping the scene. The place is beautiful. A large staircase dominates the room just to the right of the doorway. Big swaths of decorative cloth hang from the ceiling. The crowd is sparse, but it's midweek, after all, and the room seems big enough to accommodate, I don't know, the entire Red Army. But the few people who are here tonight seem to be having a gay ol' American time, and there's nothing overtly "Russian" about the place. The music blaring out of the speakers (Lil Jon, Nelly) doesn't exactly evoke thoughts of the Kremlin. What was I expecting? Cannonball fire over techno beats? Maybe I was wrong to go PC on this type of place. I kinda like it. As I walk out I notice a case with T-shirts for sale. "Boaka Bar -- Defect from the Ordinary," they say. Someone give that marketing staff a bonus already!

The next night I hit up Boaka's biggest competition for the bourgeoisie's ruble, Red Star. Now this place is a straight-up Marxist wet dream. The walls are red and black. The artwork is of the "sickle and hammer" variety. The bartenders even look a bit Eastern Bloc.

Red Star has a few different levels. The first floor is somewhat loungy, with big plush red couches under plasma-screen TVs built into the walls. Man, they spent some American cash on this place. I ask Yakov behind the bar what I can find upstairs, and he tells me, "Siberia Room and a deck," in an accent that sounds more East Texas than east Europe. Wait. Did he just say Siberia Room?

I walk upstairs and into, forgive me, a straight-up abominable snowman's wet dream. The walls are white, and it actually feels a bit more chilly up here than it did in the red den, and the cocktail waitresses are wearing teeny fuzzy bikinis with teeny fuzzy boots, as though they've just walked out of one of my straight-up…never mind.

The drink prices these last two nights have been kicking me in the wallet. I thought communism was the working man's ideology! These places are strictly ruling class. Peace out, fuzzy boots!

It's a good thing my next stop is the Proletariat on Richmond, which is dressed in the same reds and blacks as Red Star, but to a different effect. This may be because while Red Star seeks to attract the chichi clientele of downtown, the Proletariat -- home of $2 Lone Stars -- is more of a dive bar. Their color scheme says less "This will draw them in" than "This will cover the graffiti." As the name implies, this place is for the people, and they've got the pool tables and foosball to prove it. Now if they'd just clean the bathroom every once in a while…

During the day, I've been phoning the brand-new local Russian consulate. I've been wanting to speak with Consul General Nikolay V. Sofinskiy about these clubs. Has he ever been to any? What does he think of them? Do they set an appropriate Russian tone? For four days I've been hearing this: "You have reached the Russian consulate general in Houston. Our telephone system is currently under construction, so please dial zero for an operator." Dial zero, and a pleasant female voice asks me to "Please hold while I try that extension," at which time I find myself wired into a voice-mail system where "greeting one has not been recorded." Dammit! This place opened in June, and they still don't have working phone service. It's easy to believe the capitalist propaganda about how these people had to wait in line for hours just to get a single loaf of stale bread.

Back at the Russian Bear, my girlfriend has just informed me that if I don't stop thinking about ordering a Smirnoff Ice, she will walk out and I'll have to catch a ride with a pirate waiter. So I order a Corona -- you know, when in Rome. I catch Ms. Popkov offstage and get deep on her about the other places in town using her culture to cash in. Had she known about any of them, she says, she would have been flattered.

"You don't have any problem with it?"

"I have no idea. It sounds nice."

Wow. Here I am ready to start an arms race over something even the owner of this authentic Russian outfit doesn't give two shits about. That seems like a good enough reason to let it go. But I swear -- if anyone opens a Gestapo's Bar and Blitzkrieg Grill, I'm not going to let it slide.

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