A taste of home
On a record cold winter afternoon in Brooklyn, wind rips past the Italian bakeries and Chinese vegetable markets lining the streets of Bensonhurst. But just off the commercial corridor on 86th Street, a bright orange awning with yellow Russian script invites customers to Eddie’s Fancy Foods, where 76-year-old Elza Kim pulls out of the oven a baking sheet of sesame-sprinkled samosas, pastry pockets filled with lamb.
A Russian-speaking ethnic Korean from Uzbekistan, Kim serves hot tea and hardy Uzbek dishes at her one-and-a-half-table diner: plov, a beef and rice dish considered the national comfort food, and several dough-wrapped meats. The rich Uzbek foods often come to the table with pickled Korean favorites like kimchi and fish hye, a marinated bass salad that glows stoplight red. Kim owns and operates two places, this and one in Brighton Beach, with the help of family members who have moved from Tashkent to Brooklyn over the past decade.
Elza moved to Bensonhurst in 2001 to help her eldest daughter, Natasha, bring up her two children. To keep busy, she began preparing Korean salads by the pound in Natasha’s kitchen. Starting in 2003, Elza sold clear plastic take-out containers of her product to local markets until she finally opened her own restaurant in 2005, called Café at Your Mother in Law.
“In the beginning we worked together helping making salad,” says Svetlana Kim, the younger of Elza’s two daughters, who moved to the neighborhood in 2004. “My mom opened this location herself. She’s a smart, strong woman and has always been active.”
Bensonhurst, the Kims’ adopted home, used to be known as the Little Italy of Kings County. Over the past 20 years, it was transformed into Brooklyn’s third Chinatown as Italian families moved to the suburbs and immigrants from Asia settled in. Because rent prices continue to rise in nearby neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s original Chinatown, more Asian families have looked to Bensonhurst. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s also brought Russian speakers of all ethnic backgrounds to the single-family homes and split-level apartments in the area.
When Elza Kim decided to open a second café in 2010, she chose the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, where the growing number of Uzbek immigrants now frequents the eight-table restaurant.
“Uzbek food is homemade by heart,” said Elyor Ruziev, a 19-year old Uzbek cabbie, who left Tashkent a year ago, alone, and settled into a Brighton Beach apartment. At first he didn’t have a relative or a friend with whom he could share a meal. Now he eats at the café five nights a week, he says, over a bowl of steaming lagman soup, a winter staple in Uzbekistan. The square noodles, beef and light orange broth come with an aromatic side of pickled garlic and dried red pepper spice that one spoons in to taste.
Café At Your Mother in Law offers the city’s only Korean-Uzbek cuisine, which makes it an exotic destination for American food tourists. But 16-year-old server Vecheslev Kim, who is Elza’s grandson and Svetlana’s son, says it’s “just our home cooking.” That’s because his grandmother, Elza, insists on hiring family and Uzbek friends who know how to prepare the unique range of dishes.
“It’s the main reason we haven’t opened more locations,” says Svetlana. “It’s very hard to find chefs who know how to prepare this kind of food.”
The Kims may have to wait for more family friends who “play the green-card lottery” to come over and help with the business, says Vecheslev. After the final bell rings at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, he works as a server at the Brighton Beach location a few days a week. His paternal grandmother manages the kitchen.
“When my grandmother Elza heard she could cook, she of course wanted to bring her in,” he says. Vecheslev doesn’t know how to prepare these dishes himself, but he may ask his mom for lessons because he knows the business is important to his grandmother.
“About two years ago my grandmother sat the family down and told us she started this business for us. She doesn’t want to see it go,” said Vecheslev. In 2013, Elza changed the name of her LLC from Elza’s Fancy Foods to Eddie’s Fancy Foods, in honor of her daughter Natalia’s oldest son, who passed away from cancer that year. She hopes her family will carry on the restaurants in Eddie’s honor.
Still, Vecheslev’s mother works as a business development analyst at a logistics company, his aunt works as an accountant, and his self-employed uncle works in car transportation. Vecheslev plans to go to business school and become the first in his family to go to college. He says he’s considering taking over the restaurant, especially if business continues to grow.
“Ever since The New York Times wrote about my grandmother’s restaurant in 2010, we’ve seen more American and even South Korean tourists come try the food,” he says. “We had hundreds of reviews on a Yelp page that we didn’t even know about—we don’t have a website or social media. We don’t need it. It’s all word of mouth.”
On a recent Sunday evening, the Brighton Beach location hums with Russian TV programs playing on two flat screens. Four tables of Russian-speaking couples and families dip triangles of crusty Uzbek bread into steaming bowls of Korean kuksu, a soup traditionally served cold that’s presented like a color wheel of pickled vegetables, noodles and beef. Teal and white paper lanterns hang from the drop-ceiling, turning the warm pink dining room into a gathering spot for family birthday parties—or dinners for three generations of Kims.
“Sometimes we have so much family together, we have to close up shop,” Vecheslev says.Tags: ethnic cuisine, immigration, Korean, Russian, Uzbek