Coney Island, with its amusement park pizzazz, can claim summertime supremacy in New York, but when the mercury drops, head one neighborhood east to Brighton Beach, where the steamy, carb-loaded, rib-sticking cuisine of the former USSR beckons. The 1970s arrival of Russian and Ukrainian Jews earned this pocket of Brooklyn’s waterfront the nickname “Little Odessa,” but the face of the neighborhood is changing again.
“Today most contemporary Russians stay far from Brighton Beach because it resembles Soviet nostalgia that they don’t identify with,” says Moscow-born photographer Alexey Yurenev, who captures images of only-in-Brighton Beach events like the Your Highness Grandmother Pageant. “The reality of the diaspora is new émigrés from Uzbekistan, Georgia and Kazakhstan.”
Just as the Russian language unites these diverse new arrivals, dumplings serve as a kind of culinary lingua franca. They come in all shapes and sizes, fried crispy, dunked in sour cream, floating in dill-spiked broth, seasoned with cumin and cilantro. Come hungry for a five-point dumpling crawl that pairs the classics of Little Odessa with the new hubs of the diversifying Russian-speaking diaspora.
Cafe at Your Mother-in-Law
This oddly named Uzbek-Korean restaurant is dedicated to Koryo-saram cuisine, a culinary relic of the 1937 Stalinist campaign to forcefully relocate 172,000 Koreans from the Russian Far East to Central Asia. Honor the cross-cultural legacy by pairing kimchi-adjacent pickled cucumber and eggplant with manti, beef, onion and lamb dumplings served with sour cream.
Hit the Silk Road at this area favorite, which serves the cuisines of both the Uzbeks and the Uyghurs, a presently embattled Muslim minority from China’s Xinjiang region (with a significant population across the border in Uzbekistan). Expect endless combinations of cumin-spiced lamb and dough, in dishes like oversized manti dumplings and khushang, their crispy fried counterparts.
Ocean View Café
Variety is the spice of life at this Russian diner, where vareniki (half-moon dumplings) and pelmeni (smaller and more like tortellini) come in a dozen-plus iterations, including chicken, veal liver, cherry and sweet or salty farmer cheese. Bring home a bag of frozen pelmeni to channel your inner Siberian hunter, who historically toted sacks of frozen bear-meat dumplings into the taiga for an easy campfire meal.
The Republic of Georgia’s most famous culinary export may be khachapuri (cheese-filled bread boats), but don’t sleep on this spot’s khinkali, moneybag-shaped “dough bundles” stuffed with herby pork or lamb. Grab one by its topknot, bite a hole in the side, slurp out the broth and then eat the dumpling, leaving behind the doughy handle.
A bear statue greets you at the door of this Russian-Ukrainian community hub. Indecisive types should order The Ark, a platter of assorted vareniki and pelmeni, or the Skovorodka-style pierogis, which are deep-fried.