But many of the two dozen or so newer establishments catered mainly to interminable Russian banquets, where the vodka flowed more freely than the food, and tables of only three or four intent on having a normal-length meal and ordering from the menu were made to feel like unwanted orphans. But now a new place called Uzbechka has appeared on Avenue O in an obscure corner of Bensonhurst, much friendlier to outsiders and small parties alike. The immigrant family that runs the place — two brothers, one sister, a mother, and an uncle — settled in Kansas City and Key West before moving to Brooklyn and have thereby acquired a certain savvy where American restaurants are concerned. And the younger members speak perfect idiomatic English, just in case your Russian or Farsi is rusty.
An Uzbek place that doesn't just cater to Russian banquets
Uzbechka's menu has its specific origins in Tashkent, a city of two million in the eastern region of the country that was razed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The interior of the large dining room offers two rows of tables under swooshes of colorful fabric that make the interior feel like a caravanserai; the walls are plastered with photos of craftspeople, cooks, and monuments in fanciful frames. ("My uncle made those frames," our waitress proudly announced.) An impromptu stage framed in Persian carpets is found at the far end of the room, where a door leads to a tented backyard seating area that will be quite an asset when warmer weather returns.
The Tashkent take on the national dish of plov incorporates carrots, chick peas, yellow raisins, and fatty chunks of lamb into a wonderfully oily rice pilaf. The $8 serving will easily give four diners a good taste. If you were back in Tashkent, the dish might also include horsemeat sausage. Another city themed dish is called Tashkent salad, which makes surprising use of shredded daikon and a green radish native to China, along with lamb, sauteed onions, and boiled eggs, "with a little bit of mayo," as the menu charmingly puts it.
While the bill of fare offers a bumper crop of salads, most deploy meat and much larger quantities of mayo and thus may not conform with your ideas about salads. An exception is achichuk ($6.50), which is mainly ripe tomatoes and slightly pickled onions in a light vinaigrette, wearing a lovely carved crown of cucumber like a medieval potentate. Named after the restaurant, Ubechka salad ($9) finds the family (they take turns cooking) freestyling with a bewildering array of Western ingredients, ranging from kielbasa and beef to cheddar cheese and corn, with crunchy potato straws on top. Reflecting their time spent in America, there's a Caesar salad, too.
You could begin with composed salads and then go right to the kebabs, or you could commence instead with apps like manti (beautiful lamb dumplings served with dilled yogurt) or samsa (flaky and deeply brown meat pastries dotted with sesame seeds). Alternatively, you could start with soups ($6.99 each): the most famous is lagman, based on a rich beef-and-vegetable broth and swarming with long, irregular, handmade noodles — by legend the ones Marco Polo discovered and brought back to Italy. If you believe that, I have an ornate Silk Road mosque to sell you.
As a barbecue lover, the kebabs might be your entire motive for visiting Uzbechka.
The lagman served at Uzbechka is indeed one of the best in town, but even better is okroshka, a cold yogurt soup whose pale white surface bobs with potatoes and radishes, while fresh herbs float on its surface and a beef julienne lurks in its depths. The soup is supremely tart and tasty and resembles something you might find in a health-food restaurant. Unfortunately, as colder months arrive, okroshka disappears from the menu.
On to the kebabs! As a barbecue lover, they might be your entire motive for visiting Uzbechka. Heavily laced with onions and lamb fat, the ground-meat lyulya kebab is the smokiest, reeking of animal funk. Referred to as "chicken soft" — meaning it has benefited from a yogurt marinade in the Persian fashion — the chicken skewers are tender and flavorful. While lamb-chunk kebabs are often tough in Central Asian places, here they're not. As for the liver: liver is liver, and charcoal does little to improve it. Other choices include not-bad beef kebabs, luxury lamb chops, and exceedingly fatty lamb ribs. If you're ordering kebabs for a table of three or four, why not get all seven ($26)? Which is a steal for such a large heap of meat. And don't forget the dill-dusted french fries ($3.25). Though they didn't originate in Uzbekistan, the fries are the kebabs' natural companion on any continent.
Photographer: Paul Crispin Quitoriano