Escape from Moscow

Russia

Escaping Moscow is as nightmarish as entering it. We’re stuck in traffic for several hours, breathing in black, choking exhaust.

“It’s like smoking a pack of cigarettes,” Mims says, coughing.

We’re eager to put on miles. But clouds mass in the early evening sky and explode in an electrical thunderstorm.

“I feel like we’re on a TV show about natural disasters,” Andrew says.

Our spirits are low. Then we smell something like hickory barbecue. The odor increases in intensity until we reach what can only be described as a restaurant shantytown. A half dozen closely bunched homes have smoking grills in front, with people stoking smoldering wood. Each seems identical, but our choice is easy once we spot an elderly woman wearing a blue polka-dot dress, green apron, and kindly smile. She indicates that we should sit down.

We do so at a picnic table beneath an overhang. We get menus but once again are mystified by the language barrier.

“What’s your favorite?” Mims asks in Russian.

She brings us inside her restaurant—a run-down room wallpapered in fake bark—and begins showing us food options. Her favorites are borscht, skewers of mystery meat, and rice-based plov.

“What’s in the plov?” Mims asks.

She says something only Mims can understand.

“Moooooo?” he says, mimicking a cow.

She nods.

We give the thumbs-up and sit. The cook’s daughter delivers sliced brown bread—dry as the desert—and fans the grill’s flames with cardboard.

Cubes of crispy meat on skewers arrive at the table. They’re pork, not beef, but they’re pure smoky deliciousness, and they disappear instantly. The borscht comes steaming and sprinkled with fresh dill and chives. Circles of oily goodness float on top.

“This is the best borscht we’ve had in Russia,” Mims says. He’s right. The soup is soulful and delicate, homemade and hearty; stew beef makes it substantial. Even the bread’s dryness becomes an asset when dipped.

Though the portions of plov are puny (by the West’s supersize standards, at least), the dish is filling and flavorful. The rice is topped with dill and pieces of crisp beef that inspire longings for home. “They taste just like a Krystal burger,” Mims says.

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