Over an hour from Manhattan by subway and a light year away in atmosphere, Brighton Beach is a jackpot for adventurous food field-trippers. Named after the seaside town in England, for decades Brighton Beach has been a deeply Eastern European enclave. In the '40s and '50s, Jewish WWII survivors arrived en masse, followed by a wave of Russian Jews in the '70s, and more recently, non-Jewish Russian-speakers from Georgia, Armenia and even northern China (more on that later).
Dozens of markets and restaurants line the neighborhood's main drag, Brighton Beach Avenue. They offer a greatest hits list of Russian cuisine—smoked fish and meats, soups, blintzes, caviar, dumplings, pickled vegetables, slaws, rye breads, pastries, and so much more—often at mind-bogglingly low prices.
As soon as you step off the elevated subway, you're in the thick of it. Sidewalk vendors hawk $1 street snacks like pirozhki, fried dough stuffed with meat or potatoes. Grab one, but save room—Brighton Beach is filled with markets boasting exceptional prepared food buffets. Be prepared for some surprises—English is hard to come by, and the brusque employees won't want to walk you through every ingredient in the towering trays.
There are a handful of baroque, formal Russian restaurants dotting the boardwalk, but fortunately for cheap eaters, more casual cafés abound. And perhaps the best part of a trip to Brighton Beach is the beach itself, vast and crowded with babushka-clad old-timers. Grab your kolbasa, your pelmeni, and your kvass, then set up shop on the shore, picnic style: a cheap date if there ever was one.
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