Take the Q train to the Brighton Beach stop and exit directly into another country. This is “Little Russia,” also known as “Little Odessa,” the heart of Brooklyn’s Russian community and the reputed home of the Russian Mafia.
The Village Voice says, “No matter where you’re from, it’s likely that at first, Brighton will make you alienated, lonely, and even … miserable.” Perhaps not miserable, but for those who don’t speak Russian or understand the culture of the former Soviet Union, negotiating the ‘hood can be a daunting experience.
This immigrant community is remarkably insular and suspicious — in fact, Brighton Beach is the only area of New York where shopkeepers have actually abandoned their busy cash registers and run outside to angrily forbid me from photographing their storefronts. That’s right, they don’t want photos of the exteriors of their shops. Taking pictures inside the stores is even more difficult, requiring a bit (or more) of subtrefuge.
And that’s a shame because, while the area is seriously lacking in charm, visitors who peek behind the Cyrillic signs can discover fascinating (and delicious) shopping and dining in Brighton Beach. Beyond the famed Russian connection, the neighborhood has drawn immigrants from many of the nations in Russia’s orbit and the main shopping street, Brighton Beach Avenue, is crowded with Ukrainian bakeries, Belarusian furriers, Turkish sweets shops and Georgian shashlik houses.
Brighton Beach’s many bakeries all have large windows open to the street, allowing shoppers to buy savory pastries — flaky pockets stuffed with meat or cheese and fresh, fragrant loaves of pumpernickel and rye — without having to push their way into the crowded shops. The delis and supermarkets feature “salad bars” stocked with heaping trays of cooked sausages, chicken Kiev, dilled potatoes, stuffed cabbage, beet salad, eggplant “caviar,” cherry-filled blintzes and other hearty old world dishes. Huge stores offer goods ranging from t-shirts emblazoned with Russian slogans to copies of Microsoft Excel for Dummies in Russian; tiny shops sell caviar and babushkas.
If you go to Brighton Beach, be sure to stop in at Vintage, where you can select nuts and candies from dozens of bins and barrels, M&I International Foods where you can enjoy Russian ice cream, borscht and pelmeni at the rooftop cafe, and the Odessa grocery, where you can buy an enormous slab of baked salmon for only a few dollars. Walk a block or two south and you’ll find a wide, windswept boardwalk and miles of clean, beautiful Brooklyn beaches.