Despite being a city where nearly everyone is from somewhere else, Phoenix isn't necessarily known for its ethnically cohesive neighborhoods. However, as the food scene here continues to grow, it becomes increasingly clear that there are pockets of strong international culinary scenes. One such pocket is in North Phoenix, which offers some of the best Eastern European markets and restaurants in the city.
Here are three of those eateries.
Yasha from Russia
10240 N. 32nd St.
The Setting: Yasha has been a mainstay in the Valley for years — a large, bustling market filled to the brim with sausages, cured meats, fish, cheeses, pastries, breads, Russian wines and beers, dinnerware, and the occasional leather jacket. Opened by Uzbek-born Yakov (Yasha) Gavaev, Yasha from Russia rates high on the authenticity scale. It's unpretentious, surrounded by a McDonald's and an auto shop, staffed and frequented by Eastern Europeans and almost exclusively peddling Eastern European foodstuffs. The staff isn't the most outgoing bunch, but it will readily help confused customers and is open to questions. It's easy to be disoriented by the multitudinous options at Yasha. There are few places in Phoenix where it is possible to buy rugelach, herring, and a watch all in one swoop.
The Food: Yasha is a market, not a restaurant. However, the square deli counter, which surrounds a constantly moving staff, always in the midst of slicing or stuffing, provides much in the way of culinary enjoyment. Most everything in these counters is made in-house. Traditional meats and sausages provide a smoky, delicious peek into the Old Country, and the pastries are a treat. A tremendous selection of rugelach — small, diamond-shaped rolls filled with anything from chocolate to cheese — presents several excellent options to bring home. Gargantuan poppy seed cake, filled with enough seeds to fail a drug test, is some of the best in the city. And, if you're looking to host a Russian party, the selection of Russian candies, cooking supplies, breads, cheeses, and beverages will not disappoint.
The Verdict: Yasha is authentic, tasty, and not unaffordable. Whether you're looking for traditional European delicacies or merely an interesting alternative to Safeway, Yasha from Russia shouldn't be ignored.
Old Town Sarajevo
3411 W. Northern Ave.
The Setting: Formerly known as Caffe Sarajevo, Old Town Sarajevo brings a taste of the Balkans to West Phoenix. Balkan food very much retains the meat-and-potatoes character of more unambiguously Eastern European food, but it also includes several more Mediterranean elements, like pita and yogurt sauce. Unlike many other Eastern European eateries, Sarajevo doesn't have a market element — it's all restaurant. However, like many other Eastern European eateries, it is small, tucked away in a thoroughly unimpressive strip mall in a neighborhood of which the sole defining characteristic is really excellent Eastern European food. This, however, does not diminish the food. If anything, it makes it better. The décor is quaint, with the occasional Bosnian painting or decoration, and the lighting is dim. Most customers will not be speaking English.
The Food: The only server that appeared to be working at Sarajevo explained that at a Bosnian restaurant, there's one key ingredient: beef. This is reflected in the inconsistently translated menu. There are other options — the occasional chicken dish and some (excellent) veal sausage — but the bread and butter of Old Town Sarajevo is beef. The menu is dominated by the different serving sizes of cevapi, a Bosnian beef sausage, served stuffed into traditional Bosnian pita-style bread called lepinja. These sausages are really good. Dense, spiced, and very fatty, they're classic examples of food from the region and are even better when served alongside some sour cream and onions inside the lepinja, which may have been the best thing served at Sarajevo. Light and fluffy, it was not quite traditional pita, but almost more reminiscent of the Moroccan-style bread served at Central Phoenix's Couscous Express. Another quality option is the beef gyro, identified on the menu only as kebab/gyro. In structure and excellence, this dish is similar to the sausages, but instead contains sliced and spiced gyro-style beef. It's in the gyro that the Mediterranean influences really shine through. Dessert options include baklava and a type of syrup-covered fried dough called tulumbe. The tulumbe is a little texturally confusing — served cold and covered in gooey syrup with a mostly hollow inside, it is something like a churro but not quite. From a taste standpoint, however, it's quite the dish.
The Verdict: Old Town Sarajevo is another in a string of excellent Eastern European eateries in West Phoenix, offering traditional Bosnian food at near dirt-cheap prices.
De La Ana European Delicatessen
7828 N. 19th Ave., #5
The Setting: De La Ana is West Phoenix's answer to Yasha from Russia, and it is a worthy alternative. A small place in yet another strip mall off Northern and 19th Avenues, De La Ana is stocked with a variety of European imported goods, although the focus is on Eastern Europe. There are dry goods, as well as Eastern European wines and other beverages, and a considerable deli counter with an incredible array of imported cheeses and sausages. The owner, operator, and namesake, Ana, will always lend a hand to a customer in need of aid, and if you ask anyone else shopping, they'll readily sing the praises of De La Ana and how they feel it is the best and/or only traditional Eastern European market in the city. That analysis may be a bit strong, but De La Ana should not be missed all the same.
The Food: The real strength of De La Ana is what lies behind the counter. Available for order is an array of Eastern European treats, including pierogi, stuffed cabbage, herring, sausages, and more, all made in house. Unfortunately, most of these items are not available immediately. If you want them fresh, it is necessary to call and order ahead, and to leave plenty of time depending on the volume of the order. However, it is possible to get a hold of some earlier batches, even if they aren't quite as fresh. That being said, the food is quite good, regardless of whether it is fresh or frozen. The stuffed cabbage was a personal favorite, covered in tomato sauce and stuffed full of different meats. They were a little sour, but equally savory, and the fat of the meat balanced the cabbage well. Despite being possibly the least photogenic food item in history, they were an authentic and welcome taste of Eastern Europe.
The Verdict: A little more effort is required to get the goods at De La Ana, but that effort is well worth it.