A Moscow Kind of Melancholy

Russian Piroshki & Tea House
1758 University Ave. St. Paul; (651) 646-4144
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Tuesday-Friday
 

Remember the good kind of sad? When people got the frosty-morning blues, moved on to the Chicago-bound blues, and finally wrapped up with a good round of the midnight blues that hurt so good? Seems like, sometime or other, in this here world ringed round with Treatment and Choirs, sad became unadmittable. A synonym for depressed. A treatable malady. Who signed off on this?

There's a good-sad out there still. I know there is, I catch hints: When women retire to their rooms with a copy of Little Women and a box of Kleenex; whenever Carmen is staged; the fact that all the copies of Ice Castles haven't been burned. And yet, I don't know why there is a good-sad. I've been puzzling over it all day. It seems counterintuitive. It seems like if you want happy, you'd fight like hell to stay out of sad. But it doesn't work like that. Somehow, going into sad helps you deal with actual real-life sad, or erases numbness, or provides catharsis, or does something.

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Russian Piroshki & Tea House

1758 University Ave. W.
St. Paul, MN 55104

Category: Restaurant > Russian

Region: Macalester/Groveland

Obviously, I'm out of my depth. But there is something so palpably sad, sad, sad--and resonant and touching and affirming somehow--about the Russian Tea House in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood that to not mention it would be ridiculous.

It could have been that every time I was there it was pouring rain and everyone was huddled over wooden tables eating borscht from foam bowls while a man in a Greek fishing cap sat in a straight-backed chair, summoning sad, haunting songs from a black and shining accordion. One memorable afternoon I myself had a lunch of borscht, cookies, and tea while the black rain turned University into a shallow river, Sunrise, Sunset filled out the air, and I watched a boy struggle mightily for three or four minutes trying to get a broken Big Wheel up the steps of the 16A bus--for me now the epitome of good-sad.

Youngsters like me know the Russian Tea House primarily as the place that's had the intriguing "closed" sign in the window for the past two years. Whenever you drove by you got the feeling you had just missed it by a few minutes. Turns out that the place was fully closed for two years, but not a day went by without a customer trying to get in. "When we opened in 1978 we were the first Russian fast-food carryout place in the country," says Nikolai Alenov, who runs the restaurant with his wife Linda Alenov. "A fast-food magazine came in from New York or whatever to write about it. It was me, my wife, and my mother. I learned all the cooking and all the recipes from my mother, Olga. Our specialty was Russian piroshki--Russian hamburgers." The Alenovs initially served these ground-beef, rice, and cheese ovals wrapped in dough and deep-fried, but eventually the demands of good health won out, and nowadays they offer only the baked version. If you've ever had the classic Russian salmon dish koulibiac, these piroshki are basically koulibiac, with its classic wrapping of a buttery, eggy, brioche-like dough here filled with a very understated beef mixture. "There's a little sharp cheddar cheese in there," says Alenov. "When a real Russian comes in here, a real Russian says that's not traditional. But I say if Russia had had a lot of sharp cheddar cheese around, they would have put it in; people love it.

"We sell piroshki fresh and frozen, mostly to customers from the neighborhood businesses around here," Nikolai Alenov continues. "There are so many kids that come in now, from Highland Park or Cottage Grove. They say, 'I was raised on your Russian hamburgers! The freezer was full of them.'"

While Nikolai Alenov was raising a generation on piroshki, just next door his brother Pete Alenov was vending rare guitars to their pop idols: "We'd see George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan walking by the window of the Tea House. But then, my brother had a car accident and died, and we had to sell off a few hundred guitars. We had to learn a whole new business. So we closed the Tea Shop for two years, and put that sign in the window. But you know, people stopped by and called every day for two years. They just wouldn't stop. They kept encouraging us to open up again."

The couple reopened the restaurant in February, and, says Alenov, "They're all just coming right back again. It's just amazing. We didn't realize the thousands of people we knew. Our customers are like friends. Oh boy, is it busy every day."

Busy with customers stacking up for the vegetarian borscht ($1.65 a bowl; $4.90 a quart), a distinctive, sweet version made with lots of beets, carrots, and beans. Or those piroshki ($2.80 hot and fresh, six for $13.50 frozen), which seem to light on every tray. There's a cabbage roll--a ball of ground meat and rice on a bed of stewed cabbage ($2.80) covered with a garlic-accented tomato sauce. And varaniki, incredibly tender potato-filled dumplings ($1.90). On Fridays you can even get a wildly popular ground-beef version of beef stroganoff for $4.

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