Stepping into Net Cost on Tuesday afternoon feels like stepping into the land of gilded onion-dome churches and Cossacks. The aisles are cramped, the lighting lends a dingy tint to the entire store, and any interaction you have with staff is going to be brusque. The rewards of looking beyond all that line every shelf; this is your one-stop shop for all the starchy joys of comforting Eastern European cuisine.
After spending two years in Ukraine, I was borderline desperate to find the now-familiar foods reminiscent of my second home: sour and peppery pickled carrot salad, cookies filled with sticky condensed milk, and juice flavors well beyond our standard apple or orange. My Russian friend who acted as a guide was a little amused, but mostly embarrassed, by my fresh enthusiasm as I discovered each new aisle.
Most of the staff at Net Cost speaks Russian and hails from nearby Brighton Beach, or "Little Russia." As such, they didn't appreciate my emotive gushing as I stood on tip-toe, searching for birch juice. It's not actually a juice, but rather the sap from birch trees, which has a thin consistency and light, refreshing floral and fruity flavor. (It's good with vodka.)
More colloquially celebrated are prepared dishes like salo—pork fat cured in salt—chicken cutlets, and meat- and cabbage-stuffed buns. Net Cost makes them all, along with a selection of seasonal salads, but frowns upon photographing them. Among these salads is the fiery carrot salad for which I have a terribly soft spot. They don't have this one pre-made, but pickled carrots are sold in jars as well as the packet of special spices to make your own "Korean Carrot Salad." Why it's called "Korean," I couldn't figure out in two years of asking Ukrainians, but it's said to refer to Soviet-era cross-cultural pollination.
Net Cost also serves a very important purpose for the Eastern European residents of south Brooklyn; many Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox Christian, meaning they fast twice a year. The fasts are strict and long, barring everything from meat to butter, eggs to fish. Net Cost carries some specialty Lenten foods, including sushki and dried mushrooms to make the stock for a Lenten-friendly borsch.
Of course there's more: an inordinate amount of sausage varieties and both sweet and savory varenyky (you might know them as pierogies, pelmeni, or dumplings). There's an entire aisle of chocolates separate from the aisle of cakes and cookies. Hop on the subway and take a peek; there's always room for more varenyky.