Veselka might be the city’s best after-hours establishment. The 24/7 Ukrainian spot defies the traditional logic of a diner, which is that you’re supposed to go to the one that’s closest. I do not live close to Veselka. And yet I’ll hop on a Citibike at any hour and make the four mile trip to get to the East Village. The restaurant, which opened in 1954, is one of the few remaining Slavic institutions in a neighborhood that was once filled with them; Ukrainians flocked to New York in the wake of Nazi occupation and Soviet rule in the mid-20th century.
I love almost everything about this place. I love the green and black checkerboard floors. I love the little black box up front, a vending machine for people picking up keys to their Airbnb. I love that the food comes out in under 10 minutes. I love that my first trip came after I couldn’t get into a hip cocktail parlor nearby. I went to Veselka instead and got a full meal for about the price for a single martini.
That full meal was the meat plate. It now costs $16.50. It’s still my go-to order. The economical “tasting menu” starts with a cup of borscht so deeply red that if I’m ever able to afford a Lamborghini, I’ll bring a sample of this soup to the dealer to ensure the paint job is identical. It tastes of sweet earth (from the beets), deep forest (that’s the dill in action), soft pork (from chunks of boneless butt), and riesling-like acidity (it contains no riesling).
The second course in the meat plate is the meat. The meat is good. On the left hand side of the plate is a giant cabbage leaf, stuffed with beef, pork and rice, and smothered in mushroom gravy. It is a perfect meatloaf. On the lower right hand side are four pierogi, two of them short rib, two of them potato, and all of them boiled, which is the correct way to cook them. Eat the short rib pierogi by themselves. Add salt, sour cream, and buttery sauteed onions to the potato ones. Wash it all down with a giant pint of Obolon Ukrainian beer.
On a recent evening the meat plate came without borscht. I asked the young cook serving me where the borscht was, and he replied politely that he doesn’t know because he’s the pierogi guy, not the borscht guy, which I suppose is fair enough. Then he caught me smiling as I listened to him curse in Russian. The pierogi guy is pretty cool. So is Veselka. You should eat here, often. I’m calling the meat plate a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).