As Vladimir Putin could testify, Eastern European international borders aren’t indelible. My family might have said the same. My grandmother swore we were Polish. My great aunt said we were Russian. And it’s not as if the international border ran down the middle of a street between their houses. It’s the same when it comes to food. The vareniki-pirogy at La Mesa’s The Village House Kalina (8302 Parkway Drive), which bills itself as a Ukrainian-Russian restaurant, are nearly indistinguishable from the pirogi my wife and I make for the Wigilia, her Polish family’s traditional Christmas Eve celebration.
For another example, take Kalina’s Ukrainian borscht. While one might be tempted to say borscht is borscht—you either like beets or you don’t—Kalina’s was subtly different from my family’s Ashkenazi Jewish version of the classic. The beef-stock base in ours is a bit more pronounced where Kalina’s was more beet-forward. Shchi (in Russian, kapusniak in Polish), a cabbage soup, played as a cabbage-heavy vegetable soup that hinted at a flavor profile along the lines of the familiar Italian minestrone.
Some of the best bites at Kalina are the smallest. The beet salad was a well-balanced study in red. Bits of red beets with red onions, wine and vinegar combine to show a connection between color and flavor, the beets providing sweetness with a savory underpinning, the vinegar offering sour notes and the wine tying it all together. The vesna—cabbage, carrots, red onions and fruit—was ordinary, but the eggplant salad was not. The depth of flavor of the eggplant, its marriage with chopped tomato and hints of garlic, vinegar and herbs, gave the salad an exuberant, exotic flavor.
And there’s something that’s just fun about a dumpling. Kalina’s pork-and chicken-filled Siberian-style version—pelmeni—were delicious. Featuring a thick, egg-enriched wrapping—more like potstickers than ravioli—these hearty dumplings were simple and delicious: juicy meat in a doughy delivery system. Kalina’s Ukrainian-style vareniki-pirogy were slightly less hearty. The potato-and-onion versions were particularly enjoyable with bits of caramelized onions doing double duty as both garnish and little flavor bombs.
The other main courses were not quite as good. Kalina’s stroganoff was a serviceable version of the classic Russian dish featuring mushrooms and a sour cream-based sauce but was hardly extraordinary in either originality or execution. The beegos, a beef and sour cabbage hunter’s stew, was better. It was a warming dish, hearty in weight with a flavor profile that was at once exotic and strangely comforting, the savory bits of meat spiking the sour flavors of the slightly fermented cabbage.
For me, a trip to Kalina is like a trip home. And it’s not just the look of the place; it’s also the homey flavors. Indeed, they helped me settle, once and for all, the great Russian-vs.-Polish debate between my grandmother and great aunt: We’re Ashkenazi Jewish. And, as Kalina shows, it all tastes the same.