To gear you guys up for July’s Best Suburbs issue, I’m traveling to ten different ‘burbs in the DFW area for a semi-weird cross-city food tour. I’ll be documenting all my finds in these ‘Burbalicious posts that’ll be peppered throughout June and July. If you feel like your suburb deserves a shot at some SideDish love, email me and I’ll ask my Magic 8 ball if I should go.
A friend recently told me that he thinks Carrollton is boring – a blasphemous statement, really. Carrollton happens to be an exciting place for food. Koreans plug up the area around H Mart on weekends, barbecuing galbi and slurping down soondubu jjigae, while Pakistanis and Indians fill the corners and edges of Al Markaz for kulfi and samosas. It’s a surprisingly diverse suburb.
Clearly, my friend had never gone to one of my favorite places to visit, the Russian Banya, if he thought Carrollton was a boring city. Of course not. Few people know that the European-style bathhouse on Rosemeade Parkway also serves some of the best Russian food I’ve ever eaten.
First-timers (who aren’t Russian or have never been to Russia) are likely to be alarmed. The owner, who goes by the name “Tony G.,” may not always put on a shirt when he greets you, wears rose-tinted glasses and combat-looking boots, and rocks a scraggly goatee. He and his banya seem out of place in Carrollton. (In fact, Tony G. claims it is the only Russian banya and restaurant in all the Midwest.) But whenever I enter this banya, I’m immediately transported back to St. Petersburg, where I studied abroad for three months and had grown accustomed to Russians’ dyed purple hair, tattoos, and wacky fashion sense.
On weekends, this place is usually packed. All the Russians in DFW gather here to have dinner parties where they eat, drink, and strip naked for the steam baths, a popular activity in Eastern Europe. The sauna area is mostly located in the back, while the restaurant/banquet hall area sits to the left. It’s an odd place. The first three times I’d eaten here, the hostess seated me in the relaxation area for sauna people, where I’ve sat on a lawn chair to eat my meal next to an old, bathrobe-clad man reading Pravda. But weekdays here are different. It feels dead. For two hours on a Tuesday night, I was given undivided attention as the Russian Banya’s sole guest.
It surprises me that Carrollton has Russian food that tastes better than some of the food I’ve eaten in St. Petersburg. In some weird alternate universe, the Russian Banya’s pelmini (Russian dumplings), covered in plenty of dill and soaked in a butter broth, tastes as good – if not better – than the pelmini I’ve had on Krestovsky Island. The borscht soup with cabbage bits, beef chunks, onions, and beets is better than the tiny little cafe I stopped by after exploring Pushkin 10, an apartment exhibition of Russian avant-garde art that inspired me to stupidly glue newspaper clippings to my dorm room wall the next year.
Of course, the dishes cost more here, and I’m fairly certain the kitchen cook used a microwave to heat up at least two of our dishes from the dinging noise that kept going off. Thin walls don’t tend to hide dinging noises very well.
The pork sashlyk (kebab), topped with onions and garnish, was prepared on the spot. I could tell from the charred skin and succulent middle that this dish wasn’t done by a microwave. But the plov (just another fancy word for ‘pilaf’) that came with chickpeas, carrots, and bites of lamb, wasn’t evenly heated throughout. Definitely microwaved, but still tasty in a greasy and oily way.
I like to always end my meal with Russian blinis or blintzes, but they also serve as a good appetizer. Cherry, cheese, or meat fillings ooze out from their crunchy outer casings after you bite into them, creating this very satisfied feeling that can’t be topped by anything else. (Maybe your wedding day and the day your first child was born, but nothing else.) And all the while, as I lick my fingers and count the days until my next trip to St. Petersburg, I’m thinking how crazy it is that I’m eating Russian food in Carrollton – my hometown! – of all places.
Spacibo bolshoi, Russian Banya. Ya lublyu tebya.