Tucked away in a small strip center at Hillcroft and Braeswood is the Russian General Store, an unassuming shop that looks small from the outside but contains a multitude of treasures on the inside.
From the moment you walk in, you'll hear Russian being spoken. In fact, there's a good chance that the person ringing you up at the cash register doesn't speak English. Most of the labels on the food are written in Cyrillic, the national script of Russia, which can make it hard to identify what's in cans and jars that don't have illustrations on the labels. But that's part of the fun.
In addition to food, the Russian General Store also carries stacking dolls (lots of them), fake Fabergé eggs, Russian books, toiletries, clothing and toys, making it a little slice of the homeland for emigrants from Russia and the surrounding countries.
I found myself embarrassed there, though, by my lack of knowledge. My heritage is Russian and Lithuanian, and yet I knew nothing about all the food around me, save for some sausages, blintzes and caviar. Kvass? What's that, I wondered, even after asking another kind shopper to explain the fermented soda-like drink to me. Varenye? It looks like fruit in syrup, but it's on the shelf next to what appears to be jam...what to do with it?
I still haven't discovered all the interesting items for sale at the Russian General Store, but I don't want my initial confusion to dissuade you from going. For those of us who are Russian newbies, here's where to start.
5. Caviar Russia has a reputation for producing delectable caviar, and the Russian General Store carries it for a fraction of what you might pay at a restaurant or even at a larger grocery chain like Central Market. Most of the caviar available is salmon, though there also appears to be whitefish and trout. You can get a small tin of salmon roe for as little as $7, and the prices go up from there, but not too steeply until you get to the really expensive stuff. You can find cans of caviar here priced at $150 for a tiny tin, but have you really eaten so much that you can taste the difference? I didn't think so.
4. Obscure Slavic wines Ever had Moldovan wine? How 'bout Romanian? Armenian? The Russian General Store carries all of these, as well as a few Middle Eastern wines. In fact, the little shop has a bigger selection of Slavic wines than most Spec's stores. On my next trip to the Russian General Store, I'm picking up a few bottles of Georgian wine, just to see what it's like, but if it's anything like the Romanian, Moldovan and Armenian bottles I have tasted, it ought to be great. Though beware: Some of the wines can be very sweet. If you can find an English speaker, ask for advice on what to purchase.
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3. Smoked fish People have been smoking fish as a means of preserving it for as long as they have been fishing. But at the Russian General Store, smoked fish isn't just convenient; it's delicious. All of the smoking is done in-house, in the small deli area toward the back of the store. Choose from a variety of swimmers, hot- or cold-smoked or smoked and packed in oil (which keeps in the pantry pretty much forever). Try the smoked salmon belly. Spread it on toast or just eat it with a fork; either way, you won't be disappointed.
2. Candy Unless there's an illustration on the candy wrapper, you have no way of knowing what you're getting until you open it, which can be alternately exciting and terribly disappointing. Think of it like a box of chocolates that may have rich, creamy chocolates filled with liqueur or something white and chewy filled with what may or may not be blueberry purée. Either way, it's an adventure. Most of the candies are $7.99 per pound, with a few of the taffy-like goodies cheaper, and a few of the bigger chocolates more expensive. Mix and match, then invite your friends over for a bizarre/delicious tasting.
1. Sausage and salami I conduct an unofficial poll whenever I'm at the Russian General Store. "What are your favorite things to get here?" I ask, in an attempt to discover something new. Inevitably, though, the answer is sausage. Indeed, the sausage selection is impressive, and the imported salami is some of the best available in Houston. In the cold case, you can find meat from Jerusalem, Moscow (and other Russian cities), Hungary, Germany and just about anywhere in between. Always ask for a taste of something before you purchase it, though, just to make sure it's exactly what you want.