Cafe at Your Mother-in-Law, Uzbek and Korean in Brighton Beach
The marriage of Korean and Uzbek cuisine may seem like a bizarre combination, but it's a fusion with an actual ethnogeographic explanation. In the 1930's, Stalin forcefully moved the Koreo Saram population of far east Russia to what is now Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan. It figures then that Brighton Beach, Brooklyn's microcosm of the former Soviet Union, would be home to Cafe At Your Mother-In-Law, a small restaurant run by an ethnically Korean woman who only speaks Russian.
The bright orange sign that reads 'Elza Fancy Food Corp.' is the only indication that you've found Cafe At Your Mother-In-Law; allegedly, the restaurant is named so because your mother-in-law will feed you well after she has accepted you into her life.
Korean and Uzbek flavors only occasionally mingle though in Elza's dishes. Take the Lagman ($5.99) for instance, an Uzbek soup of gamey lamb and springy noodles in a light tomato broth scented with cumin and star anise; a mound of fermented chili paste gives a slight nod to the Korean fondness for heat.
Other dishes are strictly faithful to their home countries, but pair serendipitously well with each other. The Georgian Chicken Tabaka ($9.99), a butterflied brick chicken covered in garlic, dill, and paprika is nicely complemented by any of the Korean salads that are available by the pound. The Korean Carrot Salad ($3.69/lb) in particular adds sweetness and acidity to the chicken, also moistening the drier breast meat.
Salads like the fiery Eggplant Hye and the refreshing Cucumber Cha (both $4.29/lb) are best simply stuffed between pieces of the Uzbekistani non, an airy circular ring of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds. The Fish Hye ($7.99/lb), a salad of raw tilapia and onions marinated in chili and vinegar, has a chewy, springy texture that may be challenging for some.
Samsa ($3 each) stuffed with pumpkin is simultaneously buttery, sweet, and savory; its light flaky layers make it seem like a distant cousin of the croissant. On the other hand, the Begodya ($2.50 each), a dry steamed bun stuffed with under seasoned beef and cabbage is a far cry from the fresh bao found in Chinatown.
You won't find any brazen Korean-Russian hybrid dishes (kalbi beef stroganoff, perhaps?) but Elza does manage to offer a unique immigrant perspective in a stripped down setting that you won't find anywhere else in New York City. If you find yourself in Brighton Beach, and you're in search for something a little more casual than the glitzy joints on the boardwalk, it's worth giving Elza a shot.