At Tashkent Supermarket in Brighton Beach, where the screech of the elevated subway echoes through the aisles, one will encounter what might be the city’s longest and largest buffet, a collection of prepared foods fit for an oligarch’s wedding. Sauteed Russian potatoes smell of garlic. Georgian peppers glisten in their Twizzlers-red sheen. Samsa pastries hide fistfuls of lamb beneath their oven-burnished exteriors. And bright red oil pools around ropy strands of Lagman noodles.
All this food sits and steams in over 200 self-serve trays, each located on one of two separate islands, the longer of which spans more than 50 feet. These aren’t so much food buffets as gastronomic yachts. The two structures hold more than 36 salads, even more meat dishes, fried whole fish, fried calamari, grilled salmon, cans of Pringles, sesame chicken, lots of things with lots of mayonnaise, and something extraordinarily purple called “fantasy salad.” What’s a fantasy salad? A terrine of chicken, mayo, and beets, all hidden underneath a bedazzled roof of pomegranate seeds. The tiny berries glow with the force of a Times Square billboard.
Such sensory pleasures are par for course here at Tashkent, a sprawling, late-night ode to the multi-ethnic splendor of Central Asia — and the city’s substantial Uzbek population. The owners shelled out $18 million this spring for a larger location in Bensonhurst, the Commercial Observer reported in April, and a general manager tells me at least four other Tashkent outposts will debut in the coming months. In the meantime, one will continue to encounter serious crowds at the flagship on Brighton Beach Avenue.
To seek nourishment here means to encounter a density of people that recalls Before Times Balthazar at peak brunch. Patrons — often clad in purple veils, crimson veils, green veils, white tubeteikas, yarmulkes, or baseball caps — pack virtually every inch of the buffet. When you move past a tray of Kazakh pastries, their shiny domes dotted with black and white sesame seeds, someone else will occupy that temporarily vacant space as sure as floodwaters spill into a levee.
Food this good attracts attention. A pile of norin, a droopy Central Asian noodle dish, disappears so quickly that it seems to melt like a snowdrift. Eyeing that Afghan rice pilaf? During a 10-minute visit I watched the supply go from ample to nonexistent. In the mood for pumpkin manti? Better move fast if just a few remain. Each dumpling is filled with golden and orange cubes that are at once sweet and vegetal. They burst with the scent of cumin and, like so many other things here, squirt out a bit of delicious oil when you bite into one. But even if there aren’t any left, you have a solid chance of finding something great from the pickle bar, soup bar, bread bar, shawarma bar, and, if you take your rice very seriously, plov bar. This is, without question, one of the city’s great supermarkets.
The five boroughs have long boasted excellent regional markets and gourmet stores. There’s the South Asian Kalustyan’s in Murray Hill, the Japanese Katagiri on the Upper East Side, countless Mexican bodegas across the city, and oodles of Chinese groceries in Lower Manhattan, Flushing, and elsewhere. But Tashkent Supermarket, which takes its name from the capital city of Central Asia’s most populous country, reveals a greater sense of scale. The epic prepared-food sections — not to mention the 13 cashier stands — feel designed to keep pace with the offerings of a larger outlet like Whole Foods or H-Mart. And the size factor will be even more notable when the owners debut their Bensonhurst location: It will reportedly span the lower floors of a 36,000-square-foot building, potentially making it a Costco-esque affair.
One could debate whether these mega-marts are really necessary; they arguably threaten the viability of smaller venues due to their purchasing power and their wherewithal for snapping up real estate. But since so many already exist — the Whole Foods invasion continues apace — it’s energizing to see the city’s oft-overlooked (or sometimes heavily scrutinized) Central Asian inhabitants get a bit of representation on the big supermarket front. Of the 55,000 or so Uzbeks living in the U.S., more than half are in the five boroughs, the New York Times reported in 2017. Scores of them are Bukharan Jews living in Rego Park, the bulk of whom arrived decades ago to flee persecution as the Soviet Union collapsed. Uzbekistan’s Muslims, by contrast, have largely settled in South Brooklyn, many having arrived more recently to escape economic hardship back at home.
Accordingly, there is no dearth of New York restaurants showing off the melting pot cuisine of Uzbekistan, replete with Turkic, Russian, Jewish, Persian, and — due to Stalinist deportations in the 1930s — Korean influences. The opening of Tashkent Supermarket in 2017, however, helped usher in more modern, 24/7, New York-style conveniences for the Kings County Central Asian community. It meant folks could enjoy a pillowy round of Uzbek patir when the nearby Tandir bakery was closed for the night. They could swing by for a plate of shashlik before sunrise during Ramadan. They could shop the foodways of their homeland, a 17-hour flight away, without having to hit up a Russian supermarket. And they could stock up on Ukrainian borscht, Tatar chebureki, carrot kimchi, Uzbek shawarma, and smoked fish, all in one place, without having to pay a few dollars more for takeout.
Pricing is no small matter. Farida in Hell’s Kitchen charges $20 for plov, while Nargis in Sheepshead Bay asks $13. One could enjoy a smaller solo portion here for under $8. That’s not to argue that Uzbek food should be cheap, but the dense crowds here serve as a reminder that for many residents, a three-course meal at a restaurant — or even delivery from a local haunt — isn’t an ideal form of everyday eating. Sometimes that’s due to time constraints or tight finances.
In other cases, dining out simply isn’t what folks do. For lots of people, a more accessible daily meal comes from scouring a supermarket for something tasty and affordable to reheat back at home. And it’s surely disappointing to encounter yet another hot-food bar filled with dry wings, sliced turkey, pasta salad, and sweet, Asian-y chicken. In this regard, Tashkent — alongside the growing H-Mart chain — functions as an important cultural counterweight to the bland, corporate internationalism of a generic supermarket. Its success serves as a strong argument in favor of more large culinary institutions — not just restaurants — better reflecting our city’s diverse populace.
Whether you’re shopping for a beach picnic or provisioning for a meal at home, here’s how to plan your visit to Tashkent. The store closes at 11 p.m., though a spokesperson said it will likely return to its 24/7 schedule when the pandemic fully recedes.
1. Order Uzbek plov from the plov bar, but keep an eye out for other varieties
Plov, also known as palov osh, is a point of national pride for Uzbekistan. This aromatic rice pilaf is prepared almost more ways than can be counted. The Tashkent folks keep things reasonably classic; they use giant kazan pots to slow-cook the grains, infusing them with a lamby bouillon and the scent of carrots. Each serving is topped off with a generous pile of tender lamb, long hot peppers, and a whole head of garlic. Farida still serves my favorite plov, but the Tashkent version is a masterpiece in its own right. The fat-slicked rice, a study in umami, hits your tongue first, while the muttony musk of the lamb suffuses your palate with even more savoriness. Then, soft raisins and carrots tame things down with a wallop of sugar before the allium and chiles balance things out with a sharper perfume and a sting of heat.
For something lighter, be sure to check the self-serve stands for Afghan plov. The yellow grains pack a bright cardamom scent, while bits of black rice add a whisper of firmness. Cooked red berries stud the pilaf; the tiny little beads shock you with strategic doses of sourness. Both plovs are $8 per pound.
2. Literally order all the noodles and dumplings!
Some of Central Asia’s noodle traditions don’t always receive as much local representation as they should. Case in point is norin, a meat salad of sorts that’s often consumed on Eid-al-Fitr to break fast, marking the end of Ramadan. Tashkent Supermarket is a reliable purveyor of this speciality. In Uzbekistan, cooks typically simmer thinly shredded dough with horsemeat and pair the finished product with kazy, or horse sausage. Inasmuch as local restaurants serving horse usually end up realizing it’s more trouble than it’s worth, this market opts for beef, and the result is spectacular. The dish is so light it’s almost as if the ingredients dissolve on the tongue as black pepper and cumin perfume your mouth.
Hanum is another gem that doesn’t appear too often on local Uzbek menus. Cooks roll softly cooked potatoes in diaphanous sheets of noodles before showering the whole affair with sweet tomato sauce and a fistful of dill. The result is a silky Uzbek analogue to vegetarian lasagna. The more common lagman is just as good; the Uighur classic is a staple of Uzbek cuisine. Cooks toss wok-fried noodles, nearly as fat as udon, with polychromatic bell peppers and thick chunks of lamb. The dish is aromatic with the scent of sweet capsicum. And finally, of course, there are the manti, those ubiquitous Uzbek dumplings that look like supersized ravioli. A single manti is a de facto appetizer in itself, a firm noodle wrapped around half a hamburger’s worth of ground lamb — or sweet pumpkin cubes so shiny they belong in a jewel box.
3. Shashlik is good, and yet…
Uzbek charcoal grilling, at its best, is an art form no less precise than the best Jamaican jerk or Japanese yakitori. Here the gas-grilled meats are quite delicious; the chicken is juicy; the kofta-like lulya kebabs sport ample bounciness. But still, they’re simply not on par with the complex meats singed over embers at competing venues. Try the burrito-sized shawarma instead, with giant piles of lamb stuffed into crisp lavash wraps. Or consider the halisa, a creamy beef and wheat porridge — often spiked with cinnamon and sugar — that’s traditionally consumed on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. A small dice of pumpkin sits on top, adding an extra kick of sweetness.
4. For salads, consider achichuk, khe, morkovcha, and others
I couldn’t make a dent in the dozens of salads offered here, so what follows are some highlights. Achichuk, the famous Uzbek salad of tomatoes with onions, cuts through the starchiness and fattiness of plov, though some fans of this dish might prefer their fruit sliced more thinly and laced with more garlic and hot peppers. Morkovcha, the Korean-Uzbek slaw of julienned and pickled carrots, can turn out quite spicy elsewhere; this milder version goes down a bit easier and acts as a nicely cooling counterpoint to shashlik.
For something more tart, take the khe for a test drive. Likely derived from the Korean term hwe (raw fish), khe involves marinating white fish in chiles, vinegar, and onions until the component ingredients taste like someone mixed Peruvian ceviche with spicy kimchi. If you’re looking for a shock of bitterness, consider the Georgian stuffed peppers; the flesh of the crimson fruit is tender and sweet, though after an initial bite the parsley- and garlic-stuffed interior whacks you with a shock of verdant astringency.
5. Try a few stuffed pastries, like samsa and chebureki
Chebureki, a fried Tatar specialty, are some of the world’s great meat pies. Bakers form sheets of dough into half-moons the length of small chihuahuas, then stuff them with thin patties of minced beef, lamb, and onions. The exterior, ideally, will be faintly crisp while the interior remains all squirty with meaty juices. If you see an attendant ferry out a few fresh chebureki, pick one up immediately. If they they’ve been sitting around for a while, put them in the oven for a few minutes at home, which will restore some of their original crunch. The interior, a mix of lamb and beef, should still contain some of those wonderful juices.
When reheating isn’t an immediate option — like if you’re hauling lunch to the beach — the samsa ($2.49-$2.99) are a better bet, as these classic Uzbek turnovers maintain their texture for much longer. The triangular domes boast golden exteriors that shatter like a good pastry; underneath are softer layers of dough encasing hefty strips of lamb. Sesame seeds on top impart an assertively nutty finish, while the meat flaunts a restrained musk. For a more snack-size variety, consider the baby samsa ($4.99), which come three to a skewer; they exhibit a doughier chew than their larger counterparts. Also try the beef-stuffed Kazakh version, with an oblong shape, a crunchy, braided backbone, and a more cake-like crumble.
6. Don’t forget breads like non or patir
A proper Uzbek meal would be incomplete without bread. Tashkent-style, tandoor-cooked non ($2) is a good place to start. The classic Central Asian loaf is stamped flat in the middle and puffs at the edges, which gives it the appearance of an old-timey pneumatic car wheel. When it’s fresh, the outer rim is hot and chewy while the center is crisp. If the non feels a touch leaden, try the Bukharan fatir ($9), a layered and floppy flatbread the size of a small manhole cover. It flakes apart like a scallion pancake and acts as a buttery conveyance mechanism for nutty, toasty, black and white sesame seeds.