144 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 228-9682

Veselka has been around since 1954. It's sort of a NYC institution. In the past few months, I've found myself wandering into Veselka more often than I'd ever think I would. This is entirely, to be honest, because Veselka happens to be open 24 hours a day and at 3am, after a multiple conversations with my pal Johnny Walker and his brothers Blackie and Red, I wasn't in any condition to go hunting. Veselka looks and feels like a greasy spoon from the mid-70s. Some people eat in the dining room in the back, some in the cafe front, and some at the counter. If you go in during the daytime, the age of the customers hovers around 70. It's understandable. If you were spry in the 1972, then eating somewhere that hasn't changed since then can make you feel young again. Kinda like playing with Legos. Meanwhile, at night, almost everyone is in their 20s or 30s.

The service at Veselka has been, on every occasion, awful. I feel somewhat guilty saying that since my waiter or waitress has always been very nice when she's there, but attitude aside... awful. They're slow, they get the orders wrong, they vanish, they don't refill water glasses, etc. I think I could forgive them if the food was something worth writing home about, but it's not. What makes this disappointing is that Veselka has its own cookbook published, but the meals they serve you in person are on par with what you'd get at a diner. And what doubles that disappointment is that if you go back far enough in time, you'll find my ancestors eating this same stuff while fighting Cossacks. I won't go so far as to say I grew up on Ukrainian food, but I did eat it while in the process of growing up.

I made one lunch trip to Veselka with my dad, Dudeman, and one dinner trip with Dudeman and my mom, Shrink. Prior to that, all I'd eaten here were their burger platters and some coffee (the worst coffee I've ever had). During the lunch, I ordered the Beef Stroganoff ($15), cubed beef with egg noodles under a creamy mushroom sauce. Nine times out of ten beef stroganoff is great, but you need to use good quality beef, and that wasn't done here at Veselka. The beef was very cheap, very sinewy and chewy and tough. The noodles and the sauce were good, though I can't say I recommend the meal. It came with a choice of a side dish so I chose the Potato Pancake. I thought the pancake was fine, and it's a virtually impossible dish to screw up unless you're drunk while making it. That said, Dudeman didn't have much to say. "Too dense", he muttered before heading back to his plate. He went for a selection of Pierogis ($7-$11 per plate) a boiled or fried (I recommend the fried, trans fat be damned) dumpling typically filled with potato. Normally, I love pierogis. We tried the Fried Meat Pierogi, which was okay, but the ground beef that filled it was as dry as a bone; the Boiled Potato Pierogi, which was decent but not spectacular; the Boiled Sauerkraut and Mushroom, which was just hideous; and the Fried Broccoli and Cheddar, which was pretty good. Overall, Dudeman said that none of them compared to the ones our aunt makes and that if he had to choose between these and the ones we've bought at the supermarket in the past, he'd opt for the supermarket. Not, I must say, a resounding compliment. The pierogis came with sour cream, apple sauce, and sauteed onions, all of which were used liberally.

We returned with Shrink the following week to make sure that we didn't catch Veselka on an off day and sat at pretty much the exact same table. Both meals that the Rents ordered came with a choice of soup so Dudeman ordered Chicken Noodle. "This is the best chicken noodle soup I've ever had in a restaurant" he told us. A glowing compliment that I do not concur with. Well, maybe it's the best that a restaurant will serve you, though I find that hard to believe, but it's certainly not better than what you get out of a can from Chunky or Progresso. I found it bland at best. That said, it was better than Shrink's starter, the Mushroom Barley Soup, which was just laughable. Maybe the barley was made out of Styrofoam? I dunno. Do yourself a favor and skip it.

Before the soups had been finished, let alone cleared, the waiter appeared with the entrees, pushing aside plates and scooping up utensils, mine included. The Rents quickly finished what was left in their little bowls to get us more space. Shrink ordered Stuffed Cabbage ($14), cabbage leaves wrapped around ground beef, ground pork and rice, under a tomato sauce. They also have a vegetarian version, and you can choose a mushroom sauce instead of a tomato sauce if you so prefer. Again, the relatives make a better one, and again, the biggest complaint was blandness. Still, Shrink didn't think it was too bad and I agree. It wasn't. It just needed a bit more oomph. Dudeman ordered the Bigos ($14), which Veselka describes as a "hearty" stew of kielbasa, pork, onion and sauerkraut with a side of mashed potatoes. Now, to be sure, this combo seems about as appetizing to me as eating something that fell on the floor of a bus, but se la vie. The thing is, when it arrived, Dudeman's reaction was "this is stew?" It was almost a tossed salad made up mostly of sauerkraut and onions, with some pork and kielbasa thrown in as a topping. Like a reverse hot dog without the bun. Hey, if you love sauerkraut enough to wolf down a whole plate of it, then have I got a recommendation for you! In the meantime, I decided to order the Veselka Reuben sandwich ($13.50). Sliced krakovska (a sausage) with swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on a seven-grain bread. And you know what? It was damn good. Finally, something to recommend! Yay! It came with a choice of potato and I decided to try Veselka's Home Made Potato Chips, which I assure you are home made. They're soggy, saltless, and left the bottom of the plate swimming in oil.

As we were leaving, Dudeman smiled and said simply, "Well guys, this is the kind of place you go to once every few years, if only to remind yourself why you haven't been there in a few years."

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