What? Korean-Uzbek food? Yes, it does exist. How? Well, it turns out like most dictators, Stalin was an a**hole and forcibly relocated around 174,000 Korean people from Russia to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the 1930s. One result of this devastating displacement was the creation of Korean-Uzbek cuisine, and since this is New York, you don’t have to go to Uzbekistan to try it. Elza Fancy Food, a.k.a. Cafe “At Your Mother-in-Law,” is a Korean-Uzbek restaurant in Brighton Beach, right off the boardwalk.
At first glance, when you walk into the restaurant, it looks like your typical Russian restaurant/diner in Brighton Beach. Russian men are chowing down en masse while a young Russian waitress flits from one table to the next, and a Russian movie is blasting from a flat-screen (on my visit it was Lucky Trouble starring Milla Jovovich). One look into the kitchen though and you’ll notice something different, Korean ladies speaking Russian. According to Maangchi, she was only able to speak to one of the older ladies through an English and Russian speaking waiter. Born in Uzbekistan, she doesn’t speak Korean. The food, however, speaks for itself. As a Korean person, it tasted familiar, homey even, but definitely different.
For example, Kuksu ($8 for 2 small bowls) — cold noodle soup with beef, sliced egg, pickled cabbage and cucumbers, sesame seeds, and dill — tasted exactly like a noodle version of my mom’s kimchi mari, but without the kimchi (the cabbage and cucumbers were pickled but not fermented) and with the addition of dill. Cold and spicy, it was completely refreshing, especially with the fresh dill. I loved it. It tasted like something my mom from a parallel Uzbek universe would make. As for the meaning behind the name, kuksu (국수) means noodle in Korean.
Another familiar dish was the Eggplant Hye ($3.99/lb). Again, this is something I grew up eating. It’s cooked eggplant dressed with soy sauce, garlic, and lots of red pepper. Spicy and garlicky, it makes for great banchan. The only difference was that it was made with Italian eggplants as opposed to Asian eggplants which are less spongy and thinner skinned.
I also ordered a few non-Korean influenced items from the menu. Braised cabbage with rice and meat ($4.99), stuffed generously and covered in tomato sauce, onions, and dill, was very filling and also pleasantly fresh-tasting. Stuffed cabbage can often taste wet and old in many restaurants, but here that wasn’t the case at all.
Samsa ($3), a pastry filled with cumin-scented ground lamb was the only miss of the day. The filling was nice, but the bread was a tad too tough.
Elza Fancy Food doesn’t serve alcohol (BYOB!), but they do make a delicious Compot ($0.75), which isn’t Korean at all, but reminded me of the sugary grape drink my mom would make with grapes too sour to eat. Which by the way is a great lemon to lemonade analogy to the development of Korean-Uzbek cuisine. When Stalin makes your life a living hell, learn to survive and one day you’ll be rewarded with kuksu.
One last note. Check your bill before paying. I didn’t notice until I got home that 18% tip was already added to the check. As a result, I ended up paying close to 41% tip. Service is good at Elza, but not 41% great. Be forewarned.
Elza Fancy Food
a.k.a. Cafe “At Your Mother-in-Law”
3071 Brighton 4th Street (b/n Oceanview & Brighton Beach Ave; map)
Brooklyn, NY 11235