In Houston, I regularly eat Uyghur food, the cuisine of the Turkic ethnic minority that inhabits the Xinjiang region of China. One of my favorite restaurants serves Palestinian-Jordanian fare; I can dine around the world without traveling more than 20 minutes or so whenever I want. But I'm Slavic through and through. On 23andMe.com, I don't have any slices in my ancestral pie—I am one big, uncut round of Ashkenazi Jew.
I know through family history that my heritage is Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian. But while those traditions may have made it past Ellis Island with my family, they didn't stay long. My grandmother made a carrot-filled chicken soup identical to one I tasted in Krakow, but beyond that, even traditional foods like brisket lost their ancestral luster in more convenient preparations over the years, stewed away in the metallic-tasting contents of a can of Del Monte tomato sauce.
I've always been attracted to the foods of my ancestral homelands, though. Polonia is a beloved splurge, and I seek out Russian food when I leave Houston. But my options at home have always been limited. Nyam Nyam Café in Cypress has the filled puff pastry pirozhki, borscht and long-marinated skewered meat shashlik, and Wholly Crêpe in Tomball proffers some forgettable takes on classics like Stroganoff and the dumpling pelmeni. But within the bounds of Space City, I had no Russian options until Terrace Café opened this past fall.
A banquet hall with a small café only open when there isn't a big event taking place, Terrace Café can be hard to pin down. But on a recent Tuesday, lunch was being served, and I was able to taste my way through four countries of the former Soviet Union in a single meal. But most importantly, I had my first bite ever of Belarusian food, a country which accounts for about half of my genetic makeup.
The sole dish identified on Terrace Café's menu as specifically Belarusian is kolduny, a potato pancake stuffed with ground chicken. For a kid who grew up on latkes, the crisp jackets of shredded potato made perfect sense. The center of moist meat, like the core of a well-seasoned dumpling, took it to the next level. But creamy mushroom sauce completed my journey home to a place I've never been.
Other dishes with which I'm more familiar cemented my certainty of the restaurant's quality. When I go to Uzbek restaurants (sadly, Houston's Silk Road Grill closed last year), I always order what is generally known as Korean Carrot Salad. Despite the name, the dish was invented in the former Soviet Union, but by Korean immigrants. Vinegared and chile-flecked with heaping doses of garlic and coriander, the carrots recall some of my favorite breakfast dishes served in northwestern China, and Café Terrace's version is spot-on.
Representing Georgia, the strangely minuscule version of the boat-shaped, egg-and-cheese-filled khachapuri is also done right, despite the tiny size. Bountiful fresh dill gives it an herbaceous tinge that brought the flavor a cut above average. Ukrainian vareniki (or pierogi) filled with sour cherry burst like soup dumplings with cherry juice. The chewy dough tasted fresh and unmistakably homemade.
Perhaps Terrace Café's greatest gift is the scope of its menu. I have months or years of eating ahead, in which I'll try new dishes each time. For a taste of Kazakhstan, it will be beef-filled manti, samosa-like chebureki, kebabs and hand-pulled laghman noodles. The day I have traditional Russian food, it will be beet-heavy salads, chicken Kiev and beef Stroganoff. I have a lot of dining to do, and with each meal, I'm sure to uncover another small taste of my culinary heritage.