Enter this small restaurant and you’ll witness a largely Korean staff speaking Russian and serving Uzbek, Russian and Korean food. In New York, you can only find such a combination at Elza Fancy Food (or Cafe At Your Mother-In-Law’s). It’s not fusion; you won’t see any kimchi-stuffed samsas (Uzbek meat pastries) on the menu. Instead, you’ll have a range of Uzbek and Russian entrees to choose from, along with several Korean soups and salads.
In the late 1930s, the Soviet Union deported more than 170,000 ethnic Koreans living by the borders of the Russian Far East and forcefully relocated them to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The mingling of these cultures and cuisines has resulted in the dishes here. They’re cheap to fairly priced, so you can order several things and indulge in some family-style eating. I’ve been back several times for the lagman and plov, but I always try one or two new things while I’m at it.
Lagman is an Uzbek hand-pulled noodle soup consisting of beef and various vegetables. The carrots, peppers, celery and chopped green beans are cooked down until soft and tender. You’ll also find chopped green onion sprinkled in. While I’ve only had lagman a few times, I know that this place does it well. I’m always in the mood for this hearty and comforting dish, but it’s especially wonderful to have during the colder months. If you want to add a little spice to your lagman, it comes with a pickled garlic and chili powder condiment that’s got quite a potent flavor.
I love the flavors of Elza’s plov, but it can be inconsistent, as observed by the pictures above. The first time we ordered this dish, the meat (sometimes lamb, other times a combination of that and beef) was especially moist and tender. On the second and third visits, the meat was dry and somewhat tough. However, the saving grace is the rice with chickpeas and soft carrots. While I prefer the fluffier and softer version (left) over the drier, more “separate” version (right), it’s always aromatic and cooked down with the flavors and oils of the meat.
I was curious to see how Elza’s Korean food would stack up, so I ordered the kuksu. This bowl of soup consists of somyeon (thin wheat flour noodles), pickles, seasoned cabbage, shredded egg and beef, along with a sprinkling of dill and sesame seeds. Kuksu can be served hot or cold. I opted for the middle ground and got it room temperature, which was refreshing without being too icy. It came beautifully presented, almost like bibimbap, and it’s full of pickled flavors ranging from sour to savory to sweet. Though the bowl was larger than expected, it was still very light, and the flavors and ingredients worked in harmony. The kuksu comes with a chili powder condiment, so you can make it as spicy as your heart desires.
Make sure to order some Tashkent non, an Uzbek flatbread. It arrived piping hot, and was fluffy, fresh and lightly chewy. I took one bite and devoured the rest of the slice before I could stop myself.
I tried several other dishes that were good, but not as noteworthy. The manti is full of meaty flavor, and especially nice accompanied by sour cream, but it’s a little too oily and fatty for my tastes. The stuffed cabbage was decent, but there are better versions elsewhere. It didn’t have enough sauce, and conversely had too much onion flavor (good for some, but I’m not a big fan of onions). As borscht goes, this was comforting, but I’ve realized that the only version I truly love is Polish white borscht.
Disclaimer: I’ve only been to the Brighton Beach location. I tried to visit the one at Bath Beach/Bensonhurst, but it was closed when the business hours indicated otherwise. I’ve never returned to try my luck.