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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slow Times for Soviet Fast Food

In the beginning, there were pelmeni. And until Mikhail Gorbachev said, "let there be McDonald's," pelmeni were Russia's Big Mac, Whopper and Filet O'Fish all rolled into one.


The humble ravioli-like snack was Russia's fast food, with such bourgeois luxuries as shashlik, or Caucasian kebabs, pirogi, or pies, and sosiski, or sausages, bringing up the rear.


Today, with McDonald's, Burger Kvin and Russkoye Bistro sprouting up all over Moscow, the poor pelmennayas, or stand-up bars where pelmeni are traditionally consumed, look doomed to die.


"The young people don't like coming here any more," lamented Nadezhda Mikhailova, the head cook at the Barrikadnaya pelmennaya opposite the Moscow zoo, who was so small, pale and round that she looked uncannily similar to a pelmen herself. "Before perestroika, there was always a huge [line]. Now we serve about 300 people per day. Some people say it's become too expensive. Maybe people aren't eating out to economize."


"Eating out" is perhaps not the best way to describe the rich cultural experience that is the Russian pelmennaya.


The one at Barrikadnaya was suffused with a rich bouquet of body odor, mixed with stale beer and doughy steam. One glazed-eyed drunk was propped up on one of the elbow-height tables, unable to summon the willpower to approach the self-service counter.


The few lone customers munched the overboiled, sour cream covered pelmeni with grim determination as they contemplated the brown formica walls in silence. And at 10,000 rubles ($1.80) for 200 grams of mushy dough and some bread, the prices are even less competitive than thedecor.


"We came in here because it was on the way," said one customer, who had a bottle of vodka in his pocket, through a mouthful of pelmeni. "These aren't very good. The meat is terrible."


One step up from the pelmen is the Caucasian cheburek, a type of deep fried semicircular piece of dough with a piece of minced meat and some meat juice inside. Stand-up restaurant lovers with more exotic tastes value the cheburek over the pelmen because of its crunchy, greasy texture and spicy filling.


"I haven't been in here for 15 years," said Alexander, a well-dressed customer at the cheburechnaya at Pankratiyevsky Pereulok near Sretenka, whose BMW was parked outside. "I am on my way to see a childhood friend with whom I always used to eat these chebureki, so I popped in to buy some for the sake of nostalgia."


The interior of the cheburechnaya was not much different from the pelmennaya, except that it was packed and cheerful. Groups of men, grease dripping from their chins, chased down their chibureks with beer or vodka. "I've been coming here for 20 years," said Anton Dryukov, 37. "Though I've worked all my life as a waiter in Aragvi and the National, I come here for the best chibureki in town."


At 1,800 rubles, the chiburek weighs in as better value than pelmeni, even counting the fact that no fewer than four are required to fill you up.


The top of the scale in terms of Soviet fast-food experiences is the sosisechnaya, the emporium where sausages, soup, beer and gherkins are doled out to an altogether better class of customer.


"It's cheaper than McDonald's," said the female owner of the sosisechnaya on Krasnoprudnaya Ulitsa, which serves fat, slimy pink sausages for 4,500 rubles a pop. "Ordinary people come in here. Let bandits go to McDonald's. Real Russian people want to eat Russian food."