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Brighton Beach's 'Little Odessa' offers a culturally rich day trip

Spending the day in Brighton Beach can be

Spending the day in Brighton Beach can be a cultural experience that you can't find anywhere else. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Brooklyn's Brighton Beach is much more than its sand and surf.

When you go inland, you are immediately immersed in "Little Odessa," a Russian enclave named after the Ukrainian city on the Black Sea.

The neighborhood, which is bound by Sheepshead Bay to the north, Coney Island to the west and Manhattan Beach to the east, has been an immigrant-rich area for a long time.

European Jews were the main immigrant population for decades until the mid-1970s, when a change in Soviet immigration policies brought a new wave of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, according to brooklynjewish.org.

It is no wonder why the neighborhood still bears the name "Little Odessa"— more than half Brighton Beach's population is foreign-born and about 45 percent speak an Indo-European language at home, according to censusreporter.com.

Many shop and restaurant signs are in Cyrillic and the locals often assume you speak Russian until you say something in English. Make sure to brush up on your Russian before you go — "da" ("yes"), "nyet" ("no") and "spasiba" ("thank you").

It's a truly a unique and immersive New York experience to be surrounded by almost nothing but Russian and Eastern European food, music and language. After spending a day there, we crafted an agenda to help you get your feet wet in Brighton Beach, from sunrise to sunset.

Get tea (and baklava) at Brighton Güllüoglu Baklava Cafe 

After getting off the B or Q train at the Brighton Beach Avenue stop, start your morning off right by stopping at a Turkish cafe at 239 Brighton Beach Ave. that boasts about making baklava since 1871. Güllüoglu started in Turkey and now has three locations (two in New York City and one in New Jersey) run by the same family. All of the baked goods you'll find there use ingredients imported from its Istanbul factory. We ordered the Turkish tea, an omelet made with Turkish sausage, and a small baklava — because when in Rome, right?

Go to the beach 

Brighton Beach, just east of Coney Island, accessible by Brighton First Road and Brighton Second through Fourth streets, offers clean sand and usually more space to stretch out than its popular neighboring beach. We hope you brought a towel and an umbrella because you'll want to spend a hazy, lazy morning by the ocean. If you forgot something, plenty of stores along Brighton Beach Avenue will have what you need for your beach trip.

Walk along the boardwalk 

The boardwalk is the same landmarked Riegelmann Boardwalk you see in Coney Island, however, some of the wooden boards can be a little unstable, so step lightly. With that being said, it is worth it to take a nice stroll down the boardwalk to do some people watching (watch for grandmothers in their babushkas getting some sun and serenading musicians) and take in the salty air.

Do lunch on the beach at Tatiana Grill or Volna

Once you've gotten enough beach, there's no doubt you'll be hungry. Luckily, you won't need to go far — there are several restaurants on the boardwalk that can help you out. The long-standing Tatiana Grill and Cafe Volna are the first obvious choices near Brighton Fourth Street. Again, most servers will greet you in Russian. At these eateries, you'll have a choice of some Russian dishes but also some American staples like burgers, salads and seafood. Lunch here can get a little pricey, so if you want to do something on the cheap, head east to find a couple of small walk-up eateries that sell burgers and other comfort foods. 

Or head inland to Cafe at Your Mother-in-Law

Feeling adventurous? Then you won't want to miss Cafe at Your Mother-in-Law, 3071 Brighton Fourth St., which serves Korean-Uzbek food — that is, Korea by way of Uzbekistan. The no-frills eatery specializes in home cooking that'll make you feel like you're at grandma's house. Try the eggplant hye (salad), the lagman, a beef/lamb soup with noodles, and the honey-drizzled chak-chak for dessert.

Shop for tchotchkes at Saint-Petersburg 

This large purveyor of Russian goods is a must. Saint-Petersburg at 230 Brighton Beach Ave. is a gifts seller/bookstore/clothing shop that has been in Brighton Beach since 1994. Its extensive inventory of books has over 10,000 titles, and its clothing (shawls, scarves, hats, costumes), gifts/souvenirs (Faberge eggs, jewelry, lacquer boxes, paintings and nesting dolls) and home goods are made in Russia. It's a fun glimpse into a different culture and a way to appreciate its artisans.

Have a different grocery shopping experience 

Brighton Bazaar (1007 Brighton Beach Ave.) is also a way to immerse yourself in Brighton Beach's many cultures. As you walk in, you'll notice a buffet of foods available for the taking like Lyulya kebab, kielbasa, baked apples, blintzes and eggplant salad, but if you don't speak the language, you may need help. Peruse the aisles to find candies and packaged Russian specialties. 

Marvel at the desserts at La Brioche Cafe 

Further east at 1073 Brighton Beach Ave., La Brioche Cafe will delight you with all the baked goods it puts out in trays, with no glass barrier to block your view. It's astonishing. Customers are expected to grab what they like — babka, doughnuts, cakes, small buns, breads, cookies, meringue — and check out at the marbletop counter. We walked away with a container of about five treats for under $5.

Be amazed by Master Theater

Nearby, you'll find Master Theater at 1029 Brighton Beach Ave., which is constantly putting on shows featuring Russian musicians but has in the past shared its stage with Ray Charles, Engelbert Humperdink, ballet and drama troupes and more. It's been around since 1934, when it was known as the Oceana Theatre. Its ornate ticketing booth and foyer greet you as you enter the Gourmanoff grocery store, which sits on the ground floor, across from the doors to the theater. If you really want to get a taste of culture, check out one of the theater's shows.

Grab dinner at Cafe Kashkar

A favorite among locals and frequent visitors, Cafe Kashkar at 1141 Brighton Beach Ave. serves Uyghur food. The Uyghurs are an ethnic group from Central Asia who are largely concentrated in China's Xinjiang region, and their food meshes the best of Chinese, Turkish, Russian, Uzbek and Kazakh cuisines. When you go to Cafe Kashkar, you can't go wrong by ordering the fried rice palov (pilaf), the lamb and vegetable stew, lagman noodles, the manti dumplings or one of the juice kebabs. 

If you want to taste Russian or Georgian cuisine, try the Georgian House (129 Brighton First St.), Hot Potato House (109 Oriental Blvd.), Ocean View Cafe (290 Brighton Beach Ave.) or the Wise Espresso Bar (3120 Coney Island Ave.) — all of which have traditional favorites from pierogies (vareniki) to borscht and beyond. 

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