On The Road: Kachka in Portland, Oregon

There is only one restaurant in the United States where I have traveled to a city just to eat there. And that is Kachka, a traditional Russian restaurant in Portland, Oregon. And not just once. Multiple times. Last month I made the annual culinary pilgrimage with my husband (who lived in Russia once upon a time, and craves the food). 

They’ve won heaps of accolades, every single one deserved. The dining experience is decidedly cozy, with a dash of culinary education and the feeling that you’ve sat down at your favorite babushka’s table. 

The tables are covered in wildly floral plastic-coated tablecloths. Picture ’70s picnics. My resident expert informed me that they are standard in every Russian household. The walls are filled with pure kitsch, and a little village facade hovers on the second level. It is charming. Their family story is pretty incredible—but they tell it best

Kachka Restaurant Portland
Pelmeni. Photo by Lydia Martinez

Our server bustled over and talked us through the traditional Soviet-era household fare. Pickles are required, and since they are house-made, they vary daily. We snacked on pickled cauliflower, red peppers, and cabbage while we narrowed down our menu options. I appreciate that the servers here will graciously inform you about food, traditions, pronunciation, and things that pair up together. 

Like a Spanish tapas bar, much of the food at Kachka is on small plates designed for sharing. Termed “zakuski,” derived from the word morsel, most meals at your Russian grandmother’s table would start with a spread of salads, cured meats, and small plates. It’s no different here. 

For an authentic “zakuski” experience, aka “how to eat like a Russian,” the menu gives some specific advice:

  1. Cover every square inch of your table with Zakuski
  2. Fill everyone’s glasses with their beverage of choice. We suggest vodka. As an alternative, vodka is delicious.
  3. Search your retro Soviet soul for a spirited toast. Toast to friends. Toast to life. Or simply “Boodym,” a.k.a to your health! 
  4. Clink. Drink. Eat. Repeat.

We started with buterbrot—basically a slice of bread with something on top. In this case, we had the Baltic sprat buterbroti (plural), which were tiny smoked fish served on very thin, dark rye toast along with some parsleyed mayo, pickled red onion, and grated egg. We couldn’t resist the caviar buterbrot, which is as simple and decadent as you can imagine: brioche + butter + white sturgeon caviar. So simple. So good. 

To properly fill the table Kachka-style, we also got the meat and cheese assorti. Our server carefully educated us on each and every item on the board. But I don’t remember all the details. Because vodka. The sausage was mainly pork. The cheeses were very salty. The mustard was nose-searingly spicy, and the most unusual item was a cured smoked cheese with a texture, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Our table agreed that it was the standout item.

Kachka Restaurant Portland
Meat and Cheese Asorti. Photo by Lydia Martinez

In past visits, we’ve also gotten the bread board with housemade fermented breads, flaky salt, churned Smetana butter, and svanuri salt whipped salo. Smetana is similar to creme fraiche, and so the butter has a similar tang to balance the richness. Salo is one of my guilty pleasures. It is cured salt back that, in this case, is whipped to a spreadable consistency with svanuri seasoning, a Georgian blend that typically contains garlic, coriander, fenugreek, dill seeds, chili pepper, caraway, and sometimes even marigold. I don’t know the specific ratio of spices here, but it turns the salo bright orange. 

This time, somewhat to my regret, we skipped the bread board in favor of other carbs. Namely, the pelmeni, a type of stuffed dumpling that your brain might mistake for tortellini. If my husband is being honest, pelmeni may be why he loves this place. I was doing my research into the history of pelmeni for this article and came across this gem of a sentence: “it is said to have burst onto the dumpling scene from Siberia in the 14th century before spreading across Russia and into Eastern Europe” I also just learned that the translation means “ear bread” because of the shape. So that’s a fun bit of trivia. The Siberian pelmeni at Kachka are stuffed with beef, pork, veal, and onion. They are boiled, dressed with butter and vinegar, and topped with Smetana (a tart creme fraiche). For complete comfort food beast mode, get them with garlic broth. The pelmeni burst onto the table and into my belly so fast that I had to order seconds. 

The Vodka at Kachka

Now then, I have a little confession. I never understood vodka. Vodka, to me, was always the cheap and flavorless mixer of college. I never considered it a legitimate spirit designed to be paired with food. I owe vodka an apology. The first time I “got vodka” was in a tiny little Russian restaurant in Paris. My husband dragged me there at the end of a trip when we were a little burnt out on French food. It was my first time having Russian food, and of course, the vodka came out in icy cold glasses, with the rich and creamy dumplings we were eating. Suddenly, it all clicked. This was the food that vodka grew up with. They were made to go together. Something about icy cold potato vodka with hearty winter fare: so I stand corrected.

Kachka Restaurant Portland
Caviar Buterbrot. Photo by Lydia Martinez

Kachka has a wide selection of vodkas from around the world. On my very first visit, I went for a flight. Inspired by the Russian saying, “God loves a trinity,” their flights showcase unique flavor profiles. Yes, vodka does have a flavor profile. You can discern the nuances when you sip on several vodkas side by side. Vodka + caviar is my new champagne + potato chips.

This past visit, we explored their house-infused vodkas—specifically, the bergamot vodka, which was delightfully floral and light. We also went all in on the horseradish vodka—which is the one thing I insist you order. (store.connect4education.com) It is spicy without overwhelming the palette, without the bite of hard alcohol, and with a little punch of heat at the end. It pairs with everything. I promise. 

Finally, end your meal at Kachka with some tea and Russian tea cookies when you visit. You’ll be very full. But end on a sweet note, just like you would at your babushka’s house.

Reservations

960 SE 11th Ave, Portland, OR 97214 

503-235-0059


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Lydia Martinez
Lydia Martinezhttp://www.saltlakemgazine.com
Lydia Martinez is a freelance food, travel, and culture writer. She has written for Salt Lake Magazine, Suitcase Foodist, and Utah Stories. She is a reluctantly stationary nomad who mostly travels to eat great food. She is a sucker for anything made with lots of butter and has been known to stay in bed until someone brings her coffee. Do you have food news? Send tips to lydia@saltlakemagazine.com

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