If you can name all seven such-suffixed nations, well, you’re worldlier than me. Those Central Asian nations conquered by Mongol khans, then made into Soviet satellites before coming under the control of men titled President For Life all run together, even after a decade-long war in one of them. Much of what I know about the region was informed by Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev’s well-documented visit to “home of mighty U.S. warlord, Premier Bush.”
East Portland’s new Uzbekistan Restaurant piques curiosity. That vaguely Asian carrot salad that comes with steamed bao-style dumplings? Brought over by Koreans exiled by Stalin, and then adopted by Turkic locals. The dumplings themselves? Manti carried west by Mongol hordes. Hot borscht with shredded cabbage and beef? Apparently very common outside Mother Russia.
Uzbekistan Restaurant—alternately known as Uzbek Grill and billed as a “Mediterranean restaurant,” although Uzbekistan is double landlocked and no closer to the Mediterranean than Oslo—brings a mix of Central Asian food to a scruffy space that formerly housed a Chinese drive-thru. After two trips to East Burnside Street and 185th Avenue, I’m inclined to make more culinary learnings for benefit glorious food scene of Portland.
The crispy, spicy carrot salad ($3.50) is ubiquitous in former Soviet states and is served here as an appetizer or on the side with many other dishes. It’s a simple and effective mix of julienned carrots, sharp housemade vinegar, oil, garlic and crushed red pepper. We downed a pot of the house’s floral, slightly minty green tea trying to determine if it had turmeric—the waitress said it did not.
Another high point is the manti ($9.95), steamed dough pockets filled with stewy chopped onions and small, richly fatty chunks of beef and lamb. The Turkish version of the dish is tight and tiny, while the Uzbek version served here is thicker-skinned, nearly as large as a doughnut, with five on a plate.
There are two other kinds of dough pockets (each $2.50) also worth trying. The first is cheburek, a fried puff stuffed with ground beef and onions that crushes down like a fast-food burger. The other is samsa, a sesame-topped hand pie made from a heartier dough. It’s more like the outstanding lepeshka that comes in the house bread basket. The triangle-shaped samsa is stuffed with onions, caraway seeds and little cubes of lamb and beef. Ours came out perfect: crusty on the bottom, fluffy on top, soft and steamy inside.
Uzbek soups also get major play. They’re all less than $6 and served in pho-sized portions. My favorite was the borscht ($4.50), a beautiful pinkish red beet soup with thin slivers of al dente cabbage, fatty hunks of meat, peppers, onions, potatoes, a dusting of dill and a little cup of sour cream. The lugman ($5.95) has wonderfully rich broth, though its fat noodles were overdone.
The entrees that don’t involve dumplings are mostly charcoal-grilled, including kebabs of chicken, beef and lamb ($8.95, $9.95 and $10.95, respectively). All come on two metal skewers, served atop grainy wild rice (Uzbeks are famous for their plov, though it wasn’t available on my visits) with onions and salad. We had the lamb, which was a little overdone. Better is chicken tabaka ($14.95), a whole Cornish game hen, sliced down the breast and flayed out below sliced lemons, with mashed potatoes and carrot salad.
Desserts are limited and unremarkable—the Uzbeks mostly eat fruit and nuts—but you might want to end the meal with a glass of Russian kvass, a unique cider made from bread that looks like an IPA and is lightly carbonated with a mild sweetness. It’s served in intriguing glassware, too: narrow at the bottom, wide at the top, with a heavy-duty handle and stamped with intricate cursive script reading “Coca-Cola.”
- Order this: Carrot salad ($3.50), manti ($9.95), borscht ($4.50) and kvass ($2.50).
- Best deal: Samsa ($2.50).
EAT: Uzbekistan Restaurant, 18488 E Burnside St., 328-6057, uzbekgrill.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-2 pm Friday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday. Closed Friday night and Saturday.