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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Friendly Aroma of Shashlyk

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VLADIVOSTOK, Far East — Every year in June it happens. Bright plastic tables with umbrellas sprout outside restaurants, a swarthy man with a mustache fires up a barbecue, and suddenly a cheerless street corner comes to life.

Overburdened shoppers collapse to quaff a beer and devour a plate of shashlyk. Groups of friends or extended families shove tables together and set out bouquets and bottles of champagne as they celebrate birthdays. And a matter that the French have long known — that outdoor cafes make a city come alive — becomes apparent even here on the far edge of the Earth (20 kilometers off the Russian Pacific coast, the ocean cascades into an abyss filled with sea monsters).

Shashlyk season has come to Vladivostok, and with it, the sense that maybe life isn't so bad after all. The Sea of Japan is bright blue in the haze, and a humid summer slowness hangs in the air. Sure, summer in Vladivostok also brings rain and even the occasional typhoon, but on sunny days, you almost wouldn't recognize this as the same frozen, windblown city where five months ago the mayor's office was dumping coal ash on the streets instead of plowing the snow. As you walk down Russkaya Ulitsa or Ulitsa Fokina, you keep passing through clouds of barbecue smoke and detouring around sidewalk cafes filled with jolly, ruddy-faced beer drinkers.

When I first visited Vladivostok in 1996, shashlyk establishments had a seedy reputation. Outdoor grills existed mainly in places like the filthy market at the bottom of a twisty section of road called Tyoshchin Yazyk (Mothers-in-Law Tongue) in the village of Fokino. Stray dogs gathered around the barbecue man, hopefully wagging their tails. Dark rumors circulated if one of the mutts failed to show up. On such days, it was best to avoid the barbecue.

But shashlyk turned the corner into respectability after an Armenian restaurant opened up on the road to the airport and built a brick patio surrounded by low walls and vines. The food was terrific, and you could eat the grilled chicken or beef wrapped in lavash (Armenian tortillas — we always order extras at shashlyk cafes and bring them home to make burritos the next night). It was pleasant to sit, sheltered by trees, and sip a glass of Georgian red wine. Eventually, restaurant owners in town followed suit, claiming sections of sidewalk, bricking over the eroded concrete, setting up tables and umbrellas.

On Saturday, we celebrated Nonna's birthday at a shashlyk joint on Russkaya.

The place started four years ago as a tiny restaurant with a few tables set out on the asphalt courtyard, but now there is a colorful awning overhead and a broad flower bed in front and a stone-lined pool with a fountain where toddlers splash. The song "Ya Soshla Suma" cheerfully blared every 15 minutes on the sound system. A group of Nonna's relatives crowded around two tables covered with bouquets, and we ate grilled pork and mutton, and toasted her with champagne.

When you eat at an outdoor cafe, you take part in the life of the city. Strollers stare enviously as they walk by. A stray kitten appears under your table, gnawing on a piece of gristle. A girl trots past on a horse. (A horse? Where does she hide it from thieves at night? In a shipping container, such as car owners use?) A guy walks his ferret on a leash. He is pleased when we stand up to look at it over the fountain. He urges the ferret to slink over for us to admire. Then he leads it back to the street and introduces it to any girls who giggle and admire it.

People seem friendlier when they sit together in the sun drinking vodka and champagne amid a cloud of barbecue smoke.

Sometimes this is not a good thing. At a nearby table, an enormous and rather drunk woman kept batting her eyelashes at me. I looked away. I glanced back. Now she was blowing kisses — never mind that I happened to have my arm around Nonna. I busied myself devouring my shashlyk. When I looked again, the young lass started drawing words with her finger in the air.

Luckily, I'm only semi-literate in Russian. As best I could tell, she was writing, YOU HAVE SOME MEAT STUCK BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. But the point is, large drunken women don't spell out mysterious messages to me in American eateries. I love this town.