Costa Mesa’s hidden Russian hideout for the District:
PHOTO by RICK POON
Moscow Deli’s two tables overlook nothing but cracked asphalt. Stare carefully and you might get a more peripheral glance at the cars speeding down Harbor Boulevard, but it’s a steady black straight ahead. So when you turn back inside, eyes on the Cyrillic in front of you, things can be a little disorienting.
That’s partially due to the fact that Russian food exists in the collective American consciousness about as accurately as the motherland itself, misconstrued into a kind of slovenly cuisine dominated by food fit for only the coldest of winters. Knowing the American mind, there’s probably a vodka joke in there, too.
But any ignorance of Russian food can be tied to the fact that most people haven’t had a true taste. And down in these parts, there aren’t many options for that. In fact, there’s really only Moscow Deli.
Knowledge of the Russian menu aside, Moscow Deli is bound to at least feel familiar; it’s carved out of the same suburban space as so many other ethnic markets. The place does, of course, have the option for in-deli dining, but the best way to get your Russian fix is to follow the most well-tread deli rule: Stock up and take out.
Although Moscow Deli is relatively small, there’s enough on its few shelves to pack a modest Russian kitchen. For those on a vinegar-deficient diet, there’s pickled everything—carrots, tomatoes, fish. There’s cheeses and milk, sausages colored black by parts of animals you might otherwise never eat. Along the back wall, there are sweets and jellies, even items aiming toward kitsch, like the boxes of Czar Nicholas tea. There’s also ghee, originally an Indian item that’s more commonly known as clarified butter (which is simply butter separated from its milk solids). In jarred form, it’s an excellent stand-by for future baking needs.
But what makes Moscow Deli the most worthwhile is its fresh foodstuffs. For the obvious entrée, order the pirozhki, which are baked to a golden brown and stuffed with chicken. Unlike the Polish-style pierogi, the pirozhki benefit here from the addition of yeast in the dough, which lightens the football-shaped puffs to dinner-roll-like levels. For possibly more familiar flavors, there’s also frozen bags of pelmeni, a dumpling that comes filled with almost every protein in the Russian cookbook.
Another worthwhile item waiting in the deli case is the stuffed cabbage. Each burrito-sized log is filled with ground meat, carrots and plenty of onions—almost every angle of a perfect food pyramid. Batches are then cooked in a tomato-based sauce that seeps through the cabbage in a sort of culinary osmosis. Together with the pirozhki, it’s the most complete oblong meal around.
But there’s one staple that seems like it’s missing at Moscow Deli. And that’s because there’s no barrel of borscht in sight—the only visible sign of the beet soup is a few packets of powdered mix pre-made for a quick fix. But Moscow Deli has the hearty soup—all you have to do is ask. Once you do, a cup of the stuff is ladled out from the back somewhere and sealed up in a tub. Moscow Deli’s borscht is a bit heavier on tomatoes than other purely beet-based varieties, but it’s as familiar as any, with cabbage, celery, carrots and onions dominating the broth and, if you like, a tiny dollop of sour cream to turn things a more pastel pink.
There are plenty of ways to round out a meal at Moscow Deli, too, including the cakes and strudels waiting on the counter, or some candies boxed up ready for the ride home. But on the less decadent side is the sunflower seed halva, a fragile gray brick that looks about as appetizing as a cut of concrete. But unlike the sesame-seed halva popular throughout the Middle East (which sometimes doesn’t taste much like anything), Moscow Deli’s sunflower-seed halva has a much richer flavor, dense with plenty of sugar (to pull out the sunflower seeds’ ground-up sweetness). Plus, the halva melts away like the finest meringues, leaving a residual flavor that’s one of the best ways to wipe away the taste of cabbage. And here at Moscow Deli, that’s a necessity.
MOSCOW DELI 3015 HARBOR BLVD | COSTA MESA 92626 | 714.546.3354 | OPEN MON-THURS 10AM-7PM | FRI-SAT 10AM-8PM | SUN 10AM-4PM | FOOD FOR TWO $15-25