The iconic, long-running Veselka (144 Second Avenue, NYC) has been on our list of “to visit” places in NYC since we started going there regularly in 2006, but somehow we never made it there until our last trip over the Winter. It is kind of hard to pin Veselka (which means “rainbow” in Ukrainian) down. On the face of it, Veselka is a 24-hour Ukrainian diner – but with slightly higher prices and a huge line of club kids waiting to get in every night after hours (or at pretty much any time). Still, on the menu you can get Americanized brunches and the waiters rush you through with an efficiency that will make your head spin – bringing it back to a diner feel. In any case, Veselka has been serving up comfort food in the East Village since 1954, so we figured they must be doing something right to still attract crowds after all these years.
There are no reservations – so we had to wait about a half an hour for our table of five. Fortunately it was an unseasonably warm day so we didn’t mind just people watching outside (a prime area for that activity). The menu at Veselka is extensive, and there are two basic genres of food available: American diner food and Ukrainian specialties. At our table we went with a little of each. On the Ukrainian side, the favorites were clearly the pierogies – or varenyky in Ukrainian – you can get them boiled or fried, with a myriad of fillings like cheese, sweet potato, mushroom, meat, and even the more esoteric goat cheese and spinach – all served with applesauce, onions and sour cream on the side. They also make a hearty borscht beet soup (either vegetarian or meat-filled- Pint $4.95 and Quart $8.95), and a classic Ukrainian “Hunter’s Stew” dish called Bigos with Kielbasa, roast pork and onions ($17.25). For even more Ukrainian flavor, you can also get kasha (buckwheat groats) and potato pancakes as side ($4 each). On the American side of the menu, you can get breakfast all day including waffles, omelettes, and pancakes with all of the trimmings. Burgers and other sandwiches like the Reuben and egg salad round out the offerings.
M got a Veselka signature sandwich: the Baczynski ($15)which was piled high with Polish ham, Ukrainian salami, Polish podlaski cheese, pickled vegetable relish on pumpernickel. M really enjoyed the sandwich – but it was too big to eat in one sitting – even for him. I ordered a platter of 7 varenyky ($11), which was also a popular order at our table – and with good reason. The varenyky were the stars of the show, and the mushroom and goat cheese and arugula varieties were deemed to be the favorites. Opinion was split on if fried or boiled varenyky are superior, though I think my personal preference is for fried. To finish off the meal, Veselka has a range of diner favorites – you can order one of their ‘individual’ pies – which are really quite big! We got a New York staple – the black and white cookie – and a miniature banana cream pie ($7.50). Veselka serves up good, hearty comfort food with an Eastern-European flair – and we can’t think of a better place to get dumplings at 2 AM.