Thursday, December 13, 2007

Russian Grocery Tour: Little Europe

Do you have a hankering for sauerkraut and pirozhki? Do you miss standing in line for herring and smoked fish? Do you want to be verbally abused by a platinum-blonde cashier named Olga? Oh, yes, you do.

Welcome, nostalgic émigrés and curious Amerikantsi, to the Russian grocery store. Despite the evocative names these stores bestow on themselves—-Little Europe, Spartak—-they look oddly similar inside, as if some sort of Central Soviet Grocery Bureau mandated the décor. Invariably the size of a small living room, these stores are home to beige shelves, an ancient-looking cash register and fluorescent lighting. Promo posters of tarted-up pop stars are plastered on the walls, along with ads selling/seeking cars, jobs, nannies, wives, etc.

Yet if you push your way through the babushkas jostling around the fish counter, you will be rewarded with foodie gems and curiosities like marinated mushrooms, exotic dairy products and candy bars named after grizzly bears.

Join me, reader, as I take you on a multi-blog post tour of Milwaukee-area Russian groceries. We will negotiate back room caviar deals with gruff proprietors. We will investigate just what is in those frozen dumplings. We will buy herring. Ok, maybe we’ll just buy herring. In this first installment, we head over to Shorewood’s Little Europe.

UPDATE, March 2009: Little Europe has closed.

Location: 4517 N. Oakland Ave, Shorewood, Wis. (414) 967-8841

Atmosphere: See intro. A bit more spacious and better lighted than the average Russian grocery, though, complete with a little alcove for books, CDs and DVDs.

Customer Service: Surprisingly friendly and warm when one of the owners is working. Apathetic when a teenager (the owners’ son?) is putting in a shift.

Product selection: In addition to all the usual Russian goodies—-sunflower oil, tea, jars of marinated vegetables, kefir and cheeses—-Little Europe has some unusual offerings like frozen wild mushrooms. Also, there’s a very big selection of frozen pelmeni and other doughy goodies. For the poor folk, check out reasonably priced frozen fish. Nice selection of kitschy chocolate candy in the back; I recommend the tiny fruit candies in flavors like black currant and apricot.
A small selection of Russian books, magazines and CDs/DVDs for you Slavic studies majors.

Pricing: Good. Very reasonably priced loose-leaf tea. The frozen wild mushrooms range from $5.99 to $8.99 a bag. The dairy and the yummy marinated vegetables are pricier, but no sticker shock.

Buy: Frozen mushrooms.

Avoid: The uninspired rye bread, trucked in from Chicago. Can’t blame Little Europe, though. I think every Russian grocery in town sells this stuff.

Final rating: *** to ****, depending on who’s behind the counter

Rating key:

*Soviet cafeteria food

**Day-old buckwheat kasha

***Borsch made by a non-native

**** Babushka’s homemade pirozhki

*****Black caviar on a buttered baguette and a shot of chilled vodka


adele said...

There's an Eastern European grocery store not far from where I live, and I think they got their decor from the Central Soviet Grocery Bureau, too.

The owners were not friendly the one time I wandered in (I think they were very confused by the sight of a twentysomething Asian girl in Polish grandmother territory), but they had tongue in aspic at the deli counter, and I had a very satisfying sandwich for lunch.

Mrs. M. said...

Adele--I hardly ever see non-Russians in the local Russian groceries. They're almost like private clubs for people in-the-know. But, I bet the staff are friendlier if they see that you've come to fork over money and make purchases.

Anonymous said...

I actually thought the teenager was surprisingly helpful for someone his age. I did not really expect him to do anything else besides be a cashier, but he has answered questions for me and for others that I have seen there. He goes in the back to see if there is more of a product when asked.
You can't have a whole one star less based on who is behind the counter. The service is great both times, even though the owner knows more about the products.

Mrs. M. said...

Anon--My rating is based on multiple visits. I've seen the teenager hang outside the store with buddies when he should have been working and even open the store 30 minutes past the posted opening time. Answering questions and restocking shelves is just what a shop clerk is supposed to do, not super service.

Anonymous said...

i wonder if they carry sovetskoye champanskoye.....?

- AbsolutStoli said...

well, i cant comment on the little europe store that you reviewed, but i gotta say, i miss the good russian stores from back home.

i recently moved from north jersey/nyc area to the denver, co area, and the russian food scene is kind of disappointing. there are a couple of stores that have some redeeming qualities (one of them bakes their own "ukrainian" type of black rye bread), but none of them really hit the mark. maybe im just spoiled having lived in the little russia of new jersey for a good 18 years. :)

PS - i've never seen non-russians in a russian store either. its probably unheard of to even order something from the deli in anything but russian. heh

Mrs. M. said...

AbsolutStoli--Milwaukee has 4 or 5 Russian stores, but for the best selection you have to go to Chicago.

I'm sometimes mistaken for an American when I shop at Russian stores, and I've noticed that clerks get kind of shifty and uncomfortable when ringing me up. I usually say a few words in Russian to put them at ease.

pushkin said...

they do have sovetskoye champanskoe
3 diff varieties

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