Welcome to Spartak, the third stop of my Milwaukee-area Eastern European grocery tour (see also the first and second installments). Word on the street is that Spartak is the most popular of all Milwaukee-area Russian groceries. This small, bustling store is well-priced, well-stocked and staffed by reasonably helpful employees.
Location: 5587 N. Diversey Blvd., Whitefish Bay, (414) 332-3347.
Atmosphere: Just your average Russian store—beige shelves, scrappy posters on the walls, a large freezer filled with dumplings, fish, etc., in the back. Be prepared to stand in line on the weekends. Spartak also gets very busy and crowded around the holidays (that would be New Year).
Customer Service: Surprisingly good! Every time I’m in, the male cashier asks if I need help finding something, brings out items as requested, and promptly rings them up.
Product Selection: A very nice variety of everything from sauces to buckwheat kasha to the delicious marinated tomatoes described here. This is also the place to get candy, sausage, herring, and various unusual dairy products. Make sure to check out the goodies in the back freezer--this is where Milwaukee’s entire Soviet diaspora buys fish like tilapia and flounder, and puff pastry dough for semi-homemade pirozhki.
Pricing: Honestly, I haven’t been doing an item-by-item price comparison between the stores I profile, but the prices here seem pretty reasonable.
Buy: Marinated tomatoes and other pickled vegetables, sold in big glass jars by the back wall. Look for the brand with the red-nosed babushka logo. Also: kielbasa, herring (whole and packaged chunks) and smocked mackarel.
Avoid: I haven't had anything terrible here, but make sure to check the expiration dates on packaged products. No matter how friendly and helpful, Russian grocers just aren’t as stringent about this stuff as Americans.
Final Rating: ****
*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