Portland, Oregon, Has a Vibrant Community From the Former USSR — and a Restaurant Scene to Match

Eat your way through the city's rich, genre-defying "post-Soviet cuisine."

Overhead view of a table full of Russian style appetizers on plates
At Portland’s Kachka, meals often begin with zakuski, traditional Russian appetizers. Photo:

Carly Diaz/Courtesy of Kachka

Before Fatima Magomadova let a new employee stir the kidney beans into her borscht, roll crêpes filled with mushrooms, and caramelize carrots for a rice pilaf, she would ask a simple question: “What do you cook at home for New Year’s?” The answers came in a rainbow of salads, soups, and entrées representing a swath of the former Soviet Union. For many of the staff at Roman Russian Market and its adjoining sibling, Rough Russian Café, in Southeast Portland, this was their first gig in the U.S. If they got this food, they got the job.

Magomadova arrived in Portland in 1996 after fleeing the war in Chechnya, and her team — which includes a number of recent immigrants from Ukraine — speak Russian: Oregon’s third most-spoken language, after English and Spanish. Early- to mid-20th-century immigrants escaping religious persecution or civil war in Eastern Europe transited through other places (Jews through New York City, Orthodox Christians through China, and then San Francisco or Seattle) before arriving in Oregon. In Portland, they found a city that gave them freedom to worship — and a climate that allowed them to grow the kinds of produce they did at home, including all manner of root vegetables. Subsequent arrivals, like those coming in the post-Soviet era to flee poverty or war, gravitated to the established Russian-speaking communities in Southeast Portland.

A common language ties them together, but so too does the smell of sunflower oil, with its hints of forest and resin (“the fragrance of my childhood,” Magomadova says), and the flavor of sour cream — found in so many dishes from across the former Soviet republics. While the specific dishes cooked by newcomers from the South Caucasus or Central Asia differ, the cultural and political hegemony of Russia in the U.S.S.R. left behind many commonalities.

A woman serving a tray of soups at a restaurant
Anna-Lisa Chacon, Kachka’s general manager, serves matzo ball soup.

Cheryl Juetten/Courtesy of Kachka

Kachka has been one of the city’s buzziest restaurants since it opened in 2014. Owner Bonnie Morales, the daughter of Soviet immigrants, was nervous about how people would take to foods like salt-cured herring, one of the ingredients she found embarrassing when she was growing up. At Kachka, Morales uses it in a traditional salad made with beets, carrots, and sunflower mayonnaise. Still, she says, “I was very concerned people wouldn’t want to give it a try.”

Morales, whose parents immigrated from Belarus, was proven wrong when the restaurant earned national acclaim and, in 2015, a James Beard Award nomination for Best New Restaurant. But the adoration of her food hasn’t necessarily been accompanied by understanding. “In the Soviet Union, there was a nationalized food system that created a shared culinary experience across eleven time zones,” she says. In other words: it’s a cuisine that’s hard to label, but Morales calls it “post-Soviet.”

A few blocks away, Andrey Georgiyev, who was born in Ukraine and grew up in Portland, opened Pelmeni Pelmeni in 2017. He serves his establishment’s eponymous dumpling, stuffed with chicken, in quintessential Portland fashion: from a food truck.

Pair of photos showing toasting wine glasses, and Georgian dumplings
From left: Toasting with Marani Tsinandali, a wine from Georgia, at Dediko; the restaurant's khinkali, typical Georgian dumplings.

From left: Russ Vasilchuk/@russacci/Courtesy of Dediko Georgian Restaurant

And just across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, Dediko serves Georgian staples like tarragon soda and khinkali (soup dumplings filled with meat and spices) made by Ella Bakh, who grew up in the Republic of Georgia and has lived in the Vancouver-Portland area for more than 20 years. In 2019, Bakh, a former florist, embraced her passion for cooking and opened the restaurant with her son, Nico. The variety of khachapuri (cheese breads) at Dediko is rivaled only by the number of bottles of Georgian wine and the endless permutations of walnuts — an essential component of Georgian cuisine.

Georgian wines are also a focus at Morales’s new daytime café, Kachka Lavka, upstairs from the main restaurant. Bottles are sold alongside sweets by Only Child Chocolate Co., the work of Russian-Jewish chocolatier Yana Yakhnes, who was born in Moscow.

“I ultimately want to share my food, my culture, with everyone,” Morales says. “It is loving and warm, and it is what gives me the greatest comfort.”

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Pride of Portland."

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