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
*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