If you sneak a peek into the freezer of any Russian-speaking San Franciscan, chances are high that you’ll find — no, not vodka, though that may be there too — a package of pelmeni.
These meat-filled dumplings are the geographic middle ground between China’s wontons and Italy’s tortellini, and have been a staple in Russian cuisine since at least the 15th century. Served in broth or topped with melted butter, vinegar, mustard, sour cream, or a combination of any of the above, pelmeni are stored frozen, making it the perfect food for an unkind climate. Even in San Francisco, where the colder, wetter months are a far cry from Russia’s freezing temperatures, a warming bowl of pelmeni is gaining popularity.
Originating from the Ural region, where their name meant “bread ears” due to their ear-like shape, pelmeni didn’t have much trouble spreading throughout Russia and beyond. The most traditional style, known as “Siberian” pelmeni, are filled with a mix of ground pork and beef. Other varieties are stuffed with veal, pork, chicken, and occasionally even fish.
Although seven decades of Soviet rule killed off many pre-Communist Russian dishes, pelmeni thrived in the era of mechanized food production that the Soviets promoted in order to “feed the masses.” From the 1970s onward, immigrants from the former USSR brought the useful little dumpling with them wherever they went, including to San Francisco. However, until recently, the pelmeni stayed largely in the Richmond District’s Russian grocery stores and restaurants, whose Cyrillic signage warded off most American clientele.
Now, San Francisco’s hungry masses are starting to embrace pelmeni as two relatively new Russian eateries — food court counter Pushkin and the food truck Borsch Mobile — have opened downtown, popularizing the succulent dumpling designed to revive the soul on a cold winter day. The golden standard for this dumpling is still the Richmond’s Cinderella Russian Bakery & Cafe — and, with the bakery’s upcoming expansion, pelmeni will soon be available in the Mission too.
Tucked away in the underground International Food Court at 380 Bush Street, Pushkin serves handmade pelmeni to the downtown lunch crowd. Customers can watch the dumplings being rolled by hand, then boiled in large pots of chicken broth. Besides the more traditional beef pelmeni, Pushkin serves up more unusual twists such as lamb with hints of ginger and mint, chicken with basil and parmesan, and beef with smoked gouda. All of Pushkin’s pelmeni are served in broth. They are also color-coded, making a mix of all four feel as festive as an Easter egg basket.
Open since 2017, Pushkin is the brainchild of Sergey Shukailo, a young entrepreneur who hails from Ukraine, the homeland of vareniki, a crescent-shaped cousin of the pelmeni (also known as pierogi in Poland). Unlike pelmeni, Ukrainian vareniki are never filled with raw meat. Instead, they are typically filled with potatoes, boiled meat and onions, cabbage, farmer’s cheese, or various berries. Pushkin’s vareniki are stuffed with mashed potato and mushrooms, boiled, then pan-fried and topped with fried onions.
Shukailo says when he moved to San Francisco five years ago, he was surprised to see that despite the demand from Russian-speaking community, there was little Russian-Ukrainian cuisine available, especially outside of the Richmond District. “I saw an opportunity as people were looking for something authentic, but also interesting and with a human touch,” he says.
A similar line of thinking led husband-and-wife team Igor Teplitsky and Anna Flider to launch Borsch Mobile, a Russian food truck that has roamed downtown San Francisco, the Peninsula, and the South Bay since 2017.
“Most Russian restaurants in San Francisco are banquet style, so the American public doesn’t have access to everyday Russian food,” Flider says. “We wanted to make a simple place to go for a little bit of dumplings and a cup of borsch.”
The food truck offers a mix of traditional Russian dishes and more modern ones that have a Californian touch. It serves the traditional Siberian (pork and beef) pelmeni in a sour cream and vinegar sauce with chives. They’re the truck’s second most popular item after its beef tongue sandwich. Unlike Pushkin’s, these dumplings aren’t made in house, so they’re smaller and, without the accompanying broth, a bit drier. During pop-ups, the Borsch Mobile also offers potato vareniki with rabbit consommé.
Cinderella Russian Bakery & Cafe
For the most traditional bowl of Siberian pelmeni, it’s hard to find a better place than Richmond District favorite Cinderella. Its homemade pelmeni are served with a side of sour cream or in broth and make for a warm, hearty lunch perfect for a winter day. The dumplings are large and fluffy, and the beef-and-pork filling is the best representation of the Siberian style you’ll find in the city.
Soon, customers won’t even need to go to the Richmond to try them. The bakery is set to open a second location at 2937 24th Street as early as 2020, and owner Marika Fishman has promised that pelmeni will be on the menu. The Mission location will also have more indoor seating — a big plus, since you’re bound to be eating your dumplings outside in the Richmond.
One of the best things about pelmeni is that they also make for a quick, easy dinner at home. They’re sold frozen at various Russian grocery stores along Geary Boulevard, and these days the fillings are clearly marked in English. Even Trader Joe’s now carries a frozen chicken-and-mushroom version that local Russians have deemed quite good.
No matter how they are served, pelmeni make a quick, heart-warming winter meal for the whole family. They’ve been tested on the pickiest of children and the most Russophobic of adults, and everyone has asked for seconds.