When people think about food from the former Soviet Union, the first two ingredients that come to mind are dill and sour cream. But there is much more to the diverse cuisines of the USSR and former Soviet Satellites and Houston has the Russian, Polish, Czech and Bosnian eateries to prove it.
Let's start with the big one: Russia. Though there aren't any great Russian tea rooms in Houston to try, there are a couple of groceries. Golden Grain, the less sad of the two, offers a selection of handmade pelmeni (meat dumplings) and Ukrainian vareniki stuffed with creamy potato or savory cabbage fillings. The dumplings come in Ziploc bags, which is how you know they are going to be excellent. There are also in-house baked goods including Russian pies with sweet and savory fillings that are worth a try.
The store also offers Russian mayonnaise made with sunflower seed oil -- a delicacy worth trying -- and even frozen oblipikha (sea buckthorn) berries that are used in a long list of Russian remedies for everything from colds to itchy skin. One of the few things you can't find in either store is Crimean wine, but Golden Grain does stock the sweet Russian champagne Sovetskoye.
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Fans of the harder stuff might want to try Polish vodka called Zubrowka, which can be found at the Bargain Liquor Warehouse near the very straightforwardly named Polish Food Store. The store itself has homemade hunter's stew or bigos to go and pierogi galore.
You will find the restaurant Polonia one block north of the food shop, hidden in the corner of an already unassuming strip mall. There is little about the setting that inspires confidence, but once through the door you'll find a dark and cozy eatery that would be more at home in the alleys of Krakow than the strip malls of suburban Texas.
From the corner bar stocked with Zubrowka to the friendly Polish wait staff to the scent of browned butter and onions wafting through the dining room, Polonia has the details down.
You know you're in an Eastern European place when there is aspic on the menu. We skipped it, though we devoured the lard spread that came in the breadbasket. The kitchen prepares three kinds of pierogi, and you can mix-and-match. We had half potato and cheese, half meat. Both are delicious. The veal schnitzel with sauerkraut is also beyond reproach.
You can't talk about post-Soviet food in Texas without mentioning kolache, the Czech (or Slovak, depending who you ask) pastry is so popular here it landed Kolache Factory on Food Network's list of top 5 drive-thrus in America. Skip the franchise in favor of Kolache Shoppe, where the dough is dense and buttery.
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At 10:30 a.m., the Kolache Shoppe on Richmond Ave. was out of sausage kolach, so go early if you want your pick of pastries or late if you want an authentic experience and are willing to take what they have to offer.
After exhausting the Eastern and Central European dining options, move to the South toward former Yugoslavia. Houston's BYOB Bosnian Cafe Pita+ got Guy Fieri's attention a few years back, though I'll assure you it's neither a diner nor as dive-y as the spikey-haired TV personality might make you think.
It's unclear whether or not Fieri's praise is a good or bad thing, but Pita definitely deserves its sterling reputation. The specialties include cevapi (usually called by their diminutive cevapcici in the Balkans) and pljeskevica. Both are made from spiced ground meat and served on delicious homemade bread or as part of a platter. For me, the real reason to go is the side of sour kaymac cheese that comes with each plate. Spread the creamy kaymac on each link of cevap and top with chopped onions for a heavenly taste of the Balkans.
One thing Polonia, Pita and even Golden Grain have in common is handmade cabbage rolls. The fillings vary, as does the flavor of the red sauce that tops these meat-stuffed rolls, but you can't have a meal from the region without sampling golubtsy (Russian), golabki (Polish), or sarma (Bosnian).