Borsht belt

There are a lot of people who get up early in the morning, eat a healthy breakfast, pack themselves a nutritious lunch and head off to work in plenty of time. Heck, they probably even blow-dry their hair first. I am not one of those people. If I gulp a cup of coffee on the way and pick up a muffin somewhere, I’m doing fairly well. My hair never gets blow-dried, and my office-mates consider themselves lucky if my socks match.

So, packing my own lunch is a fairly rare proposition. But, when I worked Downtown and later in Midtown, I got tired of eating the same stuff all the time. (Although, truth be told, I never got tired of the burgers at Nationwide.) When you’re in a hurry, of course, a sandwich is an easy out. But, if you want something different, you can try one of the Russian specialties at the Park Plaza Cafe. Service is fast and friendly, meaning you won’t wait any longer than you would if you had ordered a sandwich.

The Park Plaza Cafe devotes a quarter of its menu to what the cafe calls a “little bit of Russia”: items such as stuffed cabbage rolls, beef stroganoff, schnitzel and pirogi. All entrees are $6.99 and come with your choice of soup or salad and homemade bread. I opted for pelmeni, or little Siberian meat dumplings, and borscht. My husband had chicken la Kiev, which comes with fried garlic potatoes.

Borscht is something I always have avoided in principle, partially because I dislike pickled beets and partially because I try to avoid foods colored red. Think about the sweet-and-sour pork you get at mediocre Chinese restaurants: You know that color doesn’t occur in nature. Borscht has that same incandescent glow to it, but at least it’s natural.

Park Plaza’s borscht was a pleasant surprise. For one thing, it wasn’t puréed, so we had a fighting chance at identifying the ingredients. The borscht was a beefy broth heaped with shreds of beet and carrot, chunks of tomato and bright red-tinted potato and chopped dill, all topped with a dollop of sour cream. A bowl of this, served with rounds of dense bread, will stave off the most bitter winter chill.

The pelmeni was also a hearty dish. The bite-sized dumplings were more substantial than ethereal, which was not necessarily a bad thing. The dumplings came with sides of sour cream and tomato sauce to dip them into. Although the ground-beef filling was a little overcooked for my taste, it was well-spiced.

Chicken Kiev once was a standard banquet dish and was one I adored as a child, especially the way the herb-flavored butter would spurt out when I cut into the rolled-up chicken breast. The Park Plaza’s chicken Kiev hardly resembles the dish of my youth, though. At the restaurant, the chicken breast was pounded flat, rolled around herbs, coated with batter, fried until crunchy and then sprinkled with long shreds of Parmesan cheese. It wasn’t bad; it just was different, but I missed the butter. The chicken meat was tender, but the flavor of the herbs used was difficult to discern.

The cafe also serves seven different salads, including a Greek salad and a chicken Caesar. Even the garden salad showed an attention to detail that lifted it above the ordinary. For one thing, the croutons were homemade, extremely crunchy and redolent of garlic and olive oil. And many of the dressings were homemade. The ranch dressing, for example, was sparked to vibrancy with the addition of fresh, chopped dill.

It used to be that opening a restaurant was what many immigrants did because, for so many, their job credentials didn’t translate well in this country. Also, a Russian, Salvadoran or Filipino restaurant would become the meeting place for that community, a way to connect with other immigrants. That no longer seems to be the case, perhaps because social services to ease the transition are more available. That’s good news for newcomers to this country and to Sacramento, but it’s bad news for food lovers because there are few places to go to get piroshki, pupusas or lumpia.