On our first evening in New York City in ten years, we absolutely had to make a pilgrimage to The Strand, the four-floor bookstore that puts most other bookstores to shame. We went there on our honeymoon back in 2009, and it seemed even larger this time, with a better selection. After browsing for a while, marveling (no pun intended) at how their graphic novel selection had grown over the last decade, and buying my wife some books, I knew where we had to go for dinner. After a Lyft ride we unexpectedly shared with another commuter (who seemed as surprised as we did), we ended up where we were supposed to be:
Veselka (https://www.veselka.com/), the 65-year-old Ukrainian restaurant I’ve wanted to visit since Louis C.K. took his TV daughters there for a late-night breakfast in the first season of Louie, before we knew what we now know about Louis C.K.. It was also one of Anthony Bourdain’s stops in his heartbreaking final episode of Parts Unknown, set in the East Village and Lower East Side. It’s a counterculture hangout favored by local luminaries and celebrities for many decades, a place that radiates cool without trying to be cool at all.
Veselka is an East Village institution, a diner that opened in 1954 and has been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week since 1990. The menu boasts American breakfast, lunch, and dinner classics as well as traditional Ukrainian specialties, which I figured I would stick to. They also serve beer and wine. Here are some of the specials of the week:
My wife and I both love pierogies, and Veselka is pierogi paradise. You can get them boiled or fried, and we opted for fried. They have several varieties, so we went for a platter of four different ones: meat, potato, cheese, and truffle and mushroom (that one was all her). Each one was better than the last, but I think we agreed the cheese one was the best, with a subtly sweet, creamy, farmer’s cheese filling. The pierogies came garnished with applesauce, sour cream, and my beloved caramelized onions. We didn’t expect that they would be crispy and bubbly on the outside, like old-school McDonald’s fried apple pies, since most pierogies I’ve had are sauteed in a pan with butter. These were better than either of us could have imagined!
My wife ordered chicken schnitzel, a breaded chicken breast cutlet that came with two sides. She went safe, with fries and egg noodles, although it was a little disappointing the egg noodles didn’t come with butter. They were just plain!
I had a hard time deciding, but since a lot of the Ukrainian specialties included mushrooms, I ultimately chose bigos, a hearty Eastern European dish I first tried many years ago at Hubert’s Polish Kitchen, a restaurant at the North Market in Columbus, Ohio, when there was snow on the ground. It’s a salty, sweet, and sour sauerkraut-based stew that also includes kielbasa sausage, roast pork, and onions, and it is absolutely delicious, even in May. I should learn to make this at home, I like it so much.
One of my sides was really creamy potato salad, loaded with dill and carrots, that worked well cutting the richness and saltiness of the bigos stew.
And because I know my wife always loves it, I also ordered kasha, roasted and boiled buckwheat (O-TAY!), a traditional Jewish side dish often served with bowtie pasta (kasha varnishkes). My mom used to make it a lot, when we were kids. I think kasha is just okay, but my wife seemed to like Veselka’s version a lot. We had no idea how huge the portions would be, so we had to help each other with all of this food.
My wife wasn’t blown away by her honey mint ginger iced tea. It sounded refreshing, but it had a fierce gingery bite.
I, on the other hand, loved my vanilla egg cream, a sweet drink that contains neither eggs nor cream. The chocolate egg cream, the much more common variety, is a classic old-timey Jewish New York beverage, made by stirring together seltzer, milk, and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. Accept no substitutes. Florida followers, you can find Fox’s U-Bet at most Publix stores, and it’s far superior to any other commercial chocolate syrups. We always keep a bottle in the fridge for occasional egg creams. They are like a dessert that also helps with digestion! (Altacocker alert!) But I had never even seen a vanilla egg cream before, and I’m glad I went for it. I love vanilla-flavored anything, but the kitchen is the only room I like things to be vanilla in, if you know what I’m sayin’.
And for dessert, we shared fresh blueberry pierogies, drizzled with sour cream. These weren’t the crispy fried pierogies from earlier in our meal, and we were a little surprised they contained actual whole blueberries, lightly warmed during the cooking process, rather than blueberry compote or preserves that we expected. They were tasty, but I might have preferred the crispy fried exterior and sweeter blueberry compote filling.
If I lived in the East Village, I would probably be a regular at Veselka. This was our first experience with any Ukrainian food, although I sure love Polish food and miss Polonia, the Polish restaurant that used to operate near my old apartment in Longwood (one of Orlando’s countless suburbs). But most importantly, I love all the history and atmosphere at these classic New York eateries, the places that have been around for decades and stay open late. They are primo people-watching spots, and you can tell multiple generations have shared delicious meals and happy memories there, and they’ve also survived some shit there. Very few restaurants in the Orlando area have been around this long, but whenever a place lasts this many decades, you know they’re doing a lot right. Veselka definitely is.