Many students report, after a while, feeling a bit worn down by eating in the university cafeterias. The food there is generally quite good and certainly convenient. However, after a while, one feels the need to stike out and find something new to tempt the senses. Below are seven great options recommended by SRAS students that are as different as they can be. Treat yourself! Being abroad is all about trying different things!
Golden Chopsticks (Золотые палочки) is a small Chinese restaurant located relatively close to the dorms where SRAS students usually stay in Irkutsk. The interior décor is not very fancy and the restaurant itself is relatively small. However, what it lacks in décor it delivers in quality. I have been there a total of three times and plan to go again. I invited my Chinese and Korean friends to see how they felt about it. They had been looking for a good Chinese restaurant for a while and I figured this place would be worth a shot for them. Fortunately, Golden Chopsticks was up to the task. Every one of my friends raved about the strong flavors and the authenticity of the traditional Chinese dishes. One friend even said that at least one dish we ordered was comparable to that cooked by her Chinese grandmother.
Although on the (relatively) pricey side for Irkutsk, the portions are enormous. The price for all four of us was about 8 dollars per person. To me it seemed astronomical since I am now used to Irkutsk’s generally low food prices, but for the quality and amount of food, it was actually pretty reasonable. We ordered a noodle dish, some vegetables, and a main meat course, which fed all four of us with leftovers to spare. Another noteworthy item is their tea. The tea was significantly more flavorful than the normal teabag and had earthy notes. However, be warned, when ordering tea one portion is a whole teapot! We realized our mistake when there were four large pots of tea set in front of us. So, order your drinks to share too!
One thing I really enjoyed, aside from the food, was getting to use chopsticks. I also learned from my Asian friends that I have been holding chopsticks incorrectly my entire life…whoops. The one thing I didn’t enjoy was the staff. I found the service to be very inattentive, even by Russian customer service standards, which are more lax than in the US. In order to get any service I had to get up and call the waitress. I also observed this happening at other tables as well. Then we would wait another 5 to 10 minutes for her to come over. Despite the service, the food was cooked and delivered in a reasonable amount of time and, let’s be honest, that is what is important anyway.
Another great thing about this restaurant is that there are vegetarian options. It can be hard to find anything besides rice without meat but this restaurant had several appetizing meatless choices. This place is great for lunch but because of the location and amount of food I would recommend it to students for dinner. Food is served family style, so bring friends who want to share! This place is perfect for tasting truly traditional Chinese cuisine. No matter what kind of food you like, with the extensive menu, there is something for everyone.
Fur’e Street, 4
The most unexpected aspect of my time in Irkutsk so far has been the discovery of an entirely vegetarian restaurant called Govinda. Govinda is a relatively new establishment, having opened up only two years ago, but already has two cafes, one on each bank of the city. The food served at Govinda is a Russian take on Indian cuisine, and is very creative and flavorful. It’s a cafeteria-style cafe, where you grab a tray and order dishes from a buffet. They serve their own version of samosas, casseroles, soy proteins, vegetable cutlets, and several chutneys with rice. Plus, they have a wide variety of interesting desserts. The seating area is really lovely; they have one low table on a raised platform where you sit on the ground with no shoes on to eat, but the rest of the tables are ordinary chair-seating. The decor is very nice and it feels as though the owners put a lot of work into the atmosphere of the cafe, as well as the menu.
I first ate at Govinda with a group of six foreigners, all very interested in seeing what a vegetarian restaurant in Russia would be like. The woman serving us was extremely patient in explaining to our motley group what the different dishes were, since they were almost entirely unfamiliar to us. Everything we ate was delicious, and everyone’s meal was remarkably inexpensive.
If you’re tired of the average Russian fast-food bliny, or just looking to try something really new and different, Govinda is a delicious and healthy choice for finding new sources of protein, and interesting new spice and flavor combinations.
3. Rio Grande
I was extremely surprised and slightly terrified when I learned that there was a Tex-Mex restaurant in Irkutsk. I have no idea why it exists or how it came about, but there it is, and it is glorious indeed.
My American friend and I were both feeling some combination of homesickness and being tired of Russian food (especially her; as a vegetarian, she subsists mostly on potatoes and kasha, as I understand it), so we finally steeled our nerves and went to Rio Grande for a late lunch/early dinner. We felt slightly guilty for straying so far from Russian food, though as I rationalized it, “When else in our lives are we going to have Siberian Mexican food?” We also weren’t expecting much, mostly just praying that they had margaritas.
In the end, though, we were extremely pleasantly surprised on all counts. I’m a New Yorker, so my opinion doesn’t count, but my friend is from Texas, so you can trust her opinion: She agreed with me that the food was pretty good, and definitely closer to actual Tex-Mex than we were expecting.
I had chicken tacos (in a hard shell) that were amply cheesy and came with salsa, corn salad (with cilantro!!!), and smetana (turns out you can tell the difference from sour cream). She had vegetarian enchiladas. We both had margaritas, which were fine, though not the best of our lives.
The restaurant is strangely divided into a few rooms, so it was very quiet when we were there, but I’m sure it heats up later at night or on weekends. It’s decently sized and would be great for a small gathering, if not a huge party.
The restaurant is located about a five-minute walk from the Linguistic Institute, so it’s ideal for a midday lunch or after-class treat. Most of the entrees are on the higher end of the price scale, so my friend and I skipped to the tacos/enchiladas/quesadillas pages in the menu, which were more reasonable, though not dirt cheap. Overall, it was a fantastic break from Russian food and well worth the price.
4. Cafe Jeans
Baikalskaya Street, 107a
Cafe Jeans is located on the second floor of the movie theater Barguzin on Baikalskaya Street. It has a very bright interior, filled with comfortable couches around low tables, and on the day we went it happened to be hosting a child’s birthday party, so one room was filled with happy children and Pixar animations played on the two TV screens. Service is sit-down, so you find a table and couch and one of the waiters will bring you a menu. Then once you’ve decided what to eat, all you need to do is press a button on the table and the waiter will come by to take your order. The service is prompt and they are patient with foreigners.
The menu, which features some humorous English translations of their more exotic dishes, offers a huge variety of options, and you can order many different kinds of food, from gourmet salads and pasta, to hamburgers and fries, to sushi and other Japanese entrees. There is also an extensive drink and dessert menu. Being a fairly gourmet place, not all of the dishes are cheap, but some of the fancier things are affordable if split between two or more friends.
I went there with two friends and we chose a couple dishes to order and split, so that we could try several things without having too much to eat. After spending a long time with the extensive (almost overwhelming) menu, we decided to try some of their Japanese dishes: vegetable teriyaki, a few types of sushi, and a side of fries. The food came quite quickly and was delicious. The vegetable teriyaki was very flavorful, and the presentation of both it and the rolls was very nice. The cucumber and avocado rolls, which came with the standard wasabi and pickled ginger, were delicious, and the Irish coffees that my friends ordered were also very good.
Cafe Jeans is not your typical budget restaurant, and could easily exceed a student budget. The menu is very extensive, and offers a large range of cuisines, therefore sharing is recommended so as to maximize the different dishes you can try at one meal without spending too much. There’s no hurry at Cafe Jeans, and with the comfortable couches you can relax there long after finishing your meal without feeling rushed or pressured to leave. Or you can grab a bite to eat there before or after a movie at Barguzin. And if you’re studying at ISLU (ИГЛУ), Cafe Jeans at Barguzin theater is located less than 10 minutes from the student dorms near Volzhskaya, so it’s a very convenient place for lunch or dinner or just coffee with friends.
5. Sushi Studio
Karla Marksa, 18
Sushi Studio is one of Irkutsk’s (and Russia’s!) many sushi cafes. It is located not far from the Irkutsk Drama Theatre and just off Lenin Street in downtown Irkutsk. Faced with a good number of sushi options in the city, it’s hard to know where to start, so one day we decided to just pick one and start working through them, gradually building up a comparison of Irkutsk’s sushi options over time.
Sushi Studio is one of our favorites. It’s a pretty cozy place in modern way: it has a clean look, bright and open. At many cafes and eating places in Irkutsk the background music can be loud to the point of being barely able to hear the person sitting next to you, but Sushi Studio had some of the chillest and most pleasant background music & video combination that I’ve seen so far here. It’s a nice change if you want a place to relax a bit with your meal.
I went to Sushi Studio for lunch with a friend and we decided to order a few things together to split. This is the easiest way to stay within a budget and still try a bunch of things. We ordered noodles with eggplant and zucchini (255 rub), vegetable tempura (90 rub), a cucumber roll (60 rub) and a pot of ginger-lemon tea (90 rub) all to split, which came to 250 rubles each. The food came in a short while and it was all delicious.
The menu offers a range of sushi rolls and combination plates as well as hot dishes, including soups, rice and noodles. While ours was a relatively small meal, we were very satisfied afterward and felt excited to return again to try other things there. Sushi Studio also provides delivery, according to their menu and website, so if you’re craving sushi from home they provide even more choices to order on their delivery menu.
Karla Marksa, 41
Cafe Mamochka is a cafeteria-style cafe on Karl Marx street, not far from the central market. It’s a very inviting place, both inside and out, with fairly standard Russian buffet fare. The food offerings vary from day to day. Some days it can be great, with lots of different options (typically on weekdays) and other days it can be less exciting, with fewer options available (more typical on weekends, it seems). But the atmosphere of Cafe Mamochka is what makes it worth a visit, any day of the week. It’s decorated like a warm, old-fashioned kitchen with small tables and booths, so you feel like you’re in your own private room while you eat with friends. Old newspapers line the walls alongside a display of old radio equipment, records, and small model airplanes.
For lunch, I had fried rice and vegetables, a Greek salad, tea, and, for dessert, a pastry called “слойка с орехами,” which I was surprised to find was basically a cinnamon roll, delicious, flaky and filled with syrup and nuts and topped with powdered sugar. It made a great end to lunch and I would go back just for dessert. Cafe Mamochka provides a nice place to sit with tea and lunch with friends and recharge from the cold.
D. Garrison Golubock
Cheremkhovskii Per. 9v
Ossetian pies are round, pizza-like pastries are made of a deliciously greasy dough, stuffed with things like cheese, potato, spinach, beet greens (seriously, its good), and/or meat. Often, a sauce is included inside like tomato sauce or the spicy Georgian tzatziki. There is one hitch though – this place that serves them is a bakery, not a restaurant. There are no tables, and you aren’t allowed to eat there. Instead, the it functions as a delivery and take out service.
The menu can be found on their website or you can get an up-to-date copy at their physical location which is conveniently located about a 10-minute walk from the university. At first glance it may appear to be quite expensive. However, keep in mind that Ossetian pies are large and filling; a small pie can easily feed 2-3 people and a large pie can be enough for 4-5 individuals. So go with friends. The pies have a wide range of fillings including vegetarian options, though not all of the fillings are available all the time.
Once you’ve selected your pie, you’ll have to choose whether to have it delivered or pick it up. Delivery costs a bit more depending on where you are, though if you have many pies and are not too far off it may well be worth it. Picking up the pie in person gets you a 10% discount, yet be aware that the bakery is not easy to find – make sure you have 2GIS ready. It’s located in a courtyard off of the main street down a poorly marked stairway which can usually be recognized by the cluster of Caucasian bakers smoking in front of it. Walk past the smokers and ring the bell to be buzzed into the bakery – the cashiers are in the room down the stairs and to the right and are generally polite and helpful. Pies take 30-40 minutes to prepare so it’s best to call and order ahead. Also, the bakery does not welcome loiterers, so don’t think you can wait around for your pie to be prepared unless you want to hang out with the aforementioned smoking Caucasian bakers out front – which is likely a good way to practice a bit of Russian, so long as it’s not too cold out.
D. Garrison Golubock