Yakov Shteyman, master chef and owner of Yakov's Deli, wanted us to know he felt sorry for us.
Initially, I thought he knew our status - did we have "broke college kids" stamped across our foreheads? What gave us away? The way we dug in our pockets for that last bit of change to pay our tabs?
Shetyman's charmingly thick Russian accent interrupted my slightly paranoid thoughts. He said, simply and somewhat seriously, "I feel sorry for you. Six years I waiting for you. You only come today. Nice."
The charm of Yakov's Deli lies in its owners, Yakov and Esther. Stay long enough, and they will begin to seem like doting immigrant parents, complete with heavily accented spousal skirmishes.
One of our crew (a regular customer of Yakov's) received a phone call on their business phone while we were there. Esther gladly handed the phone over to him, much like a mom might do while scurrying about the kitchen.
One major difference: Yakov's kitchen powers a successful business, which not only feeds hungry masses at lunch and dinner, but caters events from weddings to business lunches to funerals.
You should know from the outset that this is no quick, grab-and-go establishment, at least not when we visited. We came at lunchtime and had to wait 45 minutes to get all our food. Orders were prepared painstakingly slowly. You might want to seriously consider visiting during the off-hours instead.
Yakov's Deli calls a nondescript Richmond shopping center home. The deli itself might be nondescript also if it weren't for the hand-painted Ukrainian figurines that line shelves and the Dr. Zhivago-esque painting that decorates one corner.
Newspaper clippings, letters and postcards of appreciation are plastered on a bulletin board and spill over onto the walls. The front door is also decorated with clippings that sing the deli's praises.
The four black-and-white tables looked normal enough. What made us laugh were the gold-glittered upholstered chairs.
Stare at the chairs long enough, and you almost expect to hear disco music thumping in the background and to see a greasy guy in a purple lamé jacket with a wine cooler in one hand, sneak up behind you and say, "Hey, baby, what's your sign?"
Slip out of that nightmare long enough, and you will discover the food is excellent and priced right. Ordering carefully, two can dine for under ten bucks. The priciest item on the menu rings in at $5.59.
As we dined, sampling a variety of dishes, we discovered that Russian cuisine covers a broad range of foods. Yet one gets the feeling that Yakov's deli keeps things simple by sticking with the reliable basics and by adding a few American touches. Considering the tiny size of this deli, keeping the scope narrow probably allows for the best quality and execution.
One of the Cheap Eats crew ordered the $.95 pirozhki and declared this appetizer "oh-so-flaky and oh-so-good." This eclair-sized Russian turnover was filled with well spiced meat - a real bargain considering the amount of food you get.
Three of our group of six ordered the Moscow, a $4.59 sandwich with turkey, roast beef, salami and Russian cheese. Served on a French roll and topped with the Moscow dressing, this sandwich got rave reviews all the way around.
When asked what made the sandwich such a standout, they answered "It's all in the dressing." That flavor-boosting-dressing, a blend of garlic, lemon juice, mustard and mayonnaise helps make a potentially boring sandwich into an exciting meal.
Blintzes cost $3.99 here. Three pastry wedges are filled with a shredded chicken and beef mixture and served with sour cream. The well-spiced meat made for a dish that was anything but boring.
"I thought Russian food would be bland, but it wasn't. It was good," one skeptical cheap eater said after his blintz experience.
The Ukrainian dumplings just might become your newest comfort food. The chewy, doughy turnovers are stuffed with steamed potatoes and topped with fried onions. The potatoes are flavorfully spiced and have a savory, soothing taste.
The Schnitzel Kiev was enough to make one hungry diner jump out of his seat when Esther announced that the order was ready.
This chicken schnitzel was breaded and baked or fried (it was impossible to distinguish which) to a crisp. Served with pepper brandy sauce sides of yellow rice and fresh broccoli, this decidedly Russian chicken was pleasingly accessible to the American palate.
Other dishes include borsht ($2.15) assorted sandwiches, escargot ($3.99), chicken-fried steak a la Russ ($4.59) and trout Esther ($5.59).
Bring an open mind and have fun when checking out this slice of Russia in Houston.
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11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday and Wednesday 5-8 p.m. and Thursday and Friday 5-10 p.m.