Big Belly Belarus in Brighton Beach
One of our favorite places in the city is Brighton Beach. In the summertime, sitting at one of the cafes on the boardwalk, sipping on a liter of draft Baltika, watching a table of sharp-dressed Russian men drinking bucket loads of vodka, trying to decide if they are Russian mafia or not, is one of my favorite NYC pastimes. So I was quite excited to learn that we’d be traveling to the area to get food from Belarus.
Outside of Neptune Ave station, almost at the end of the F line, is a bright and colorful 24 hour deli called Belarus II (495-497 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn). We had read about this place in the Hungry Cabbie‘s column in Gothamist, and all we knew was that they had pickled apples. Sounded good enough for a mid-winter trip to the beach.
To me, the highlight of visiting Belarus II is not the pickles (we didn’t try the pickled apples, but the pickled cherry tomatoes and regular dill were pretty tasty) but the incredible assortment of foods prepared at the store, which fills a series of cases that span the entire length of the building. There are meat items, potato pancakes, things stuffed with other things, a variety of salads, and desserts. The colorful display was both intimidating and inviting. Everything was labeled, but nearly all of the descriptions were in Cyrillic. So we just starting picking things that looked good.
Supereg started out by ordering a few items, which the woman behind the counter then individually placed in plastic take out boxes of various sizes. He would point at an delicious looking item in the case, and she would point back and give a one word description of the food: “pork,” “cheese,” “chicken.” The process of boxing, weighing, and then labeling each thing would proceed. Twenty minutes later we walked out with 3 bags stuffed full of a feast.
But Belarus II is just a deli, and there are no tables or chairs to sit down at and enjoy the meal. We were hungry, but didn’t want to turn around and get straight back on the train. It’s hard to pass up specialty food stores, fruit stands, Russian nightclubs, and the exciting feeling one gets in Brighton Beach, similar to the sense you have of being a total outsider when you’re abroad. So we rambled along for a while under the Q train tracks that run above Brighton Ave, snacking on potato and spinach filled pastries and chocolate covered pretzels that we picked up along the way. Eventually we ended up at Cafe Volna on the boardwalk, where we downed 4 pints of Baltika in the front room over the course of 3 hours or so, all the while listening a man and a woman belt out Russian (I think) popular music (people were dancing like mad so I assume the music was popular) over a karaoke-style sound system at a bar mitzvah or some sort of similar celebration in the back.
Since we returned home very late (and quite drunk) we had to wait until the next day for our Belarusian feast.
That afternoon, one by one, we took each individually packed item out of its plastic housing, heating the things that needed heating, and then plated them. The result was quite a spread.
We started out with a few draniki, the traditional Belarusian potato pancake. Apparently in Belarus, potatoes are known as the “second bread” and there are restaurants that specialize in just preparing potatoes in diverse ways. We found these pancakes good, though not nearly as I’m sure they would have been if they hadn’t been refrigerated and then reheated. We then sampled the large meat filled dumplings, which were probably too big to have been the Belarusian vushki, supposedly similar to the little Russian ravioli-sized morsels, but which were fantastic nonetheless. Some of the best dumplings of any dumpling we’ve had thus far on this project. Next we moved on to the cheese and roasted red pepper topped pork slice and cheese-stuffed chicken breast. Both were scrumptious.
The above items were devoured quickly, along with a few meat filled pastry pies and a lot of the pickles. The rest was pecked at slowly, and with occasional puzzlement. The mushroom salad was quite salty, the salmon slices kinda fishy, and the mixed vegetable salad really beety (which Noquar eventually finished off…he loves beets). The little battered and fried fishes probably would have been far better eaten straight out of the fryer.
The meal was polished off with some fluffy store-baked marble cake and an oddly savory type of cheesecake. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a dessert, a main dish, or some sort of side. It could have worked for any of these.
In the end, our bellies were full and our hangovers cured. Despite the refrigeration and microwave reheating, most of the food was excellent. Those items that weren’t great were still very good. Next time I’m in Brighton Beach, I’ll definitely be picking up a few things at the bright and colorful Belarus II before I jump back on the train home.