Go: 8697 Fields Ertel Road, Symmes Township
Hours: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10am-10 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Very reasonable
Payment: MasterCard and Visa
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of salads, vegetarian ravioli and a fried carp entrée.
Accessibility: Fully accessible
The best thing about restaurants like the Samarkand Cafe, a modest little Uzbek diner in Symmes Township, is that they allow us to stop for a moment and consider exactly what we know about countries we've never had a chance to visit.
I know almost nothing about Uzbekistan. I know it's a Central Asian state, bordered by other "Stans," including Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. I know that Borat seems a little prejudiced against its inhabitants, but I'm not completely sure why.
I've just learned from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, that 26 million people live there, but I know absolutely nothing about the way they live. I've also just learned that, along with Liechtenstein, Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world that is doubly landlocked, which means that all the countries surrounding it are landlocked, too. And so I shouldn't expect seafood.
Tucked away in the corner of a strip mall on Fields Ertel Road, next to a Subway and partly hidden by the bright lights of a gas station, the Samarkand Cafe is not easy to stumble upon. If you dine there, it's by design. It requires planning.
Inside the alcohol-free, one-room dining area, the service is efficient and friendly, but the staff speaks very little English.
We point to "Soft Drinks" on the menu, and our server says, "Yes, Pipsi." We think he means Pepsi. We ask if they serve soft drinks other than Pepsi and he says, "Yes, Pipsi," again, his smile faltering for a second. We ask if he has any diet soft drinks. "Yes, Pipsi?" he ventures nervously. And so we admit defeat and each get a can of regular Pepsi.
We order an Olivier Salad ($3.99) and a bowl of Ugro ($3.75) soup. The salad is wholesome and tasty, made of vegetables, eggs, beef loin and mayonnaise and served with slices of bread. The Ugro is a delicious, hot clear broth with noodles and meatballs, garnished with spring onions and finely chopped dill. It counteracts perfectly the dreary weather and the cold, steady rain we ran through to get to the door.
We sample a Chebureky ($1.99), an intensely satisfying semicircular appetizer made of puffy fried dough and filled sparingly with a mix of ground beef and onions. It arrives at the table with a tomato sauce garnish, and it fills the air with an aromatic cloud of steam when we break the dough casing with a fork. We try a Samsa ($2), a hearty square fist-sized pie stuffed with spiced cubes of potato and chunks of beef.
For entrées, we order a plate of Plov ($5.99), a Giz-Biz ($10) and a grilled Lula Kebab ($7.60). The Plov, as states the menu, is a "dish from the Eastern cuisine that is absolutely delicious, made with rice and meat." It arrives at the table, a plate of rice, onion and carrots topped with chunks of flank steak. The rice has an indefinable extra dimension to its taste, as if it were cooked with meat stock instead of water.
The flavorful Giz-Biz consists of pieces of beef (they were out of the usual choice of lamb that night) threaded onto three wooden skewers and served with crispy flatbread, potatoes and onion sprinkled with dill. The Lula Kebab is delicious and pungently aromatic, made from ground beef and spices, formed around a skewer and grilled over an open flame. All three dishes are wonderful examples of simple and intensely satisfying comfort food, courtesy of one of only two doubly landlocked states in the world.
For dessert we order a Cake of the Day ($2.50), which is a generous slab of chocolate cake, and Chack-Chack ($2), a traditional Uzbek dessert that most closely resembles a Rice Crispie treat with honey and walnuts drizzled over its top. The proprietor ceremoniously places a pot of black tea and two cups in front of us to accompany our desserts.
Finally, we are finished, filled to the brim with Uzbek food. The entire feast comes to a little over $40. It's the best dining bargain in town.
The décor is sparse, and as we eat our plate of Plov and our Chebureky, Charlize Theron suffers a noisy and animated crisis on the television above the cash register. The owners are remote and standoffish, isolated by the language barrier that stands between them and most of their customers. But if you call them to your table, they are eager to please.
The rich smells of grilled beef and onions bursting from the kitchen are the best advertisement for the dishes you can sample here. It is simple and honest food, free from contrivance. It's made by recent immigrants who barely speak enough English to run a business.
And yet, somehow, that makes their food more authentic, more rewarding and much more of a reason to drive through the rain, past brightly-lit Steak 'n Shake franchises, Subway counters and gas stations in search of something different. ©