Casual Slavs

European Delicatessen

6062 Lake Murray Drive, La Mesa

Hey! They took my beer. I was only halfway down! And heck, it was a beer from the Ukraine. "Slavutych." Tall bottle of deep-flavored stuff that was slaking my thirst something beautiful. And giving me a buzz. The stuff's 7.2 percent alcohol. Two sips and I was away. Hey hey!

Now? Gone. Nyet -- where to be seen.

Okay, admittedly, I got here late. This place (the sign says "European," but it's basically Russian-Ukranian) is due to close at eight. It's a deli-bistro I've seen a couple of times from the 854 bus. Has an Astroturf deck and some tables. My kind of joint. But tonight, by the time I arrived, the crew was all playing checkers.

"Is the bistro still open?" I asked a gal as I came onto the deck.

"Closed," she said. "For the summer. The bistro, that is."

"But the delicatessen part is open?"

"Of course."

"Can I still eat out here?"

"Of course. I'll bring you inside."

I follow her. Macha. She's blonde, petite, beautiful, but she doesn't speak a whole lot of English. Inside, the shelves and cases are lined with Russian and other imported foods, Ukrainian and Russian wines, beers, vodkas, thousands of delicacies in boxes, salted fishes of all sorts, cheese sausages, red and black caviars. There are cabinets loaded with cakes and cooked dishes. It's all kind of intimidating, if you want to know the truth.

"Can you explain some of this stuff?"

"Of course."

But Macha ends up calling in Luda, the other gal, to help. Hank would be throwing his hands up at the descriptions. Health nut's haven this ain't. It looks wickedly delicious. Cabbage leaves stuffed with pork, a chicken cutlet, a stuffed chicken leg, a kind of egged country-fried chicken steak. These items are all sold by the pound (and all the same per-pound price, $5.99).

But wait, they also have Hank-worthy salads, on the refrigerated shelf underneath, all packed in plastic containers. One, filled with beets, onions, carrots, and marinated cucumbers (also $5.99 a pound), looks Russian, in a red beet sort of way. They have "Olive," a salad of peas, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and eggs (same price). The most popular, Luda says, is the Shyba salad (you pronounce it "shuba"), with mayo covering rainbow stripes of beets, carrots, egg, and herring (same price). Then there're the dumplings, like pelmeny, filled with chicken, pork, or beef ($5.99 each). Or the larger vareniki, stuffed with potatoes, or potatoes and mushrooms, cheese, even cherries (same price).

I end up taking a pirozhki -- pastry stuffed with chicken meat ($1.25), a syrniki (pancake filled with cottage cheese, $5.99/lb.; my portion costs $1.68), and a big egg-shaped, crumbed, deep-fried Chicken Kiev. Luda says it's ground chicken stuffed with herbs, mainly dill ($2.99).

I ask Macha if they have Russian or Ukrainian beer. Piva, I think they call it.

"Of course," she says. She goes to the cooler and brings out that long, Cyrillic-labeled "Slavutych" beer. Wow. Only $2.50 for the large bottle.

The thing is, each dish comes in its own squeaky plastic box. I gather it all up and go out to sit on the deck, at a table beside a greenish mural of a Russian village and an ad for "Russia-America Gold and Silver Prepaid Phone Cards." I crack the containers open, rip off the lids, and hoe in.

My first impression is, well, this tastes like English food. Fried, doughy, not too challenging. The Chicken Kiev has a hollow green center you'd swear was filled with spinach. But no, it's dill. The cottage-cheese pancake is a nice sweet alternative. The pirozhki is the most interesting item.

But the truth is that this damned fine beer makes it all interesting. The brew is rich, fruity, dark, a meal in itself. I drink it straight from the bottle.

"Russia, Ukraine, we have the best grains in the world," says Oleg, who's the owner, when I go inside to find something to bring back for Carla. "That's why our beers are so good. You stick a seed of grain anywhere there, it wants to sprout!"

Oleg says he opened here four years ago, to serve the 40,000 Russian San Diegans who live around La Mesa. He says he finds San Diego a little stodgy, after Kiev. "This is a town for old people," he says. "Look at the bars. They close at 2:00 a.m.! We like to party all night. San Diegans live to work. We Russians work to live. It's our tradition."

Huh. Maybe that explains why nobody here seems desperate for your business. It's all so casual.

Except for the energetic guy closing up. He's working overtime. By the time I get back out to my food and beer, they're gone. Gone! I'd noticed him hauling in tables as I talked with Oleg. Never guessed he'd dump my leftovers. 'Specially the half-full beer.

"Paka," says Macha from the deck as I leave. Say what? She says it means " 'bye," like "Ciao" with the Italians.

"Paka," I say. But I'm thinking "au revoir." And next time I won't let that Slavutych out of sight.

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