According to the Parks Department, there are 15 beaches within the city limits, counting all the Rockaway beaches as one, and not counting Jacob Riis (administered by the Federal Government) or the unofficial ribbons of sand that lie along Shore Parkway. The Parks Department counts 14 miles of beaches in total, and every borough has at least one with the exception of Manhattan. But which has the best food? Brighton Beach, of course.
While you may tend to think of Brighton Beach as a Russian and formerly-Soviet enclave, it is much more than that. Café Kashkar (1141 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-743-3832) is the jewel in the crown, a rare Uyghur establishment that peddles the Silk Road food of Xinjiang, China, which means big meaty lamb dumplings called manti, homemade noodles known as lagman in soups and stir fries, cumin-dusted kebabs (pick lamb rib), and cold composed salads that are just the thing for the hot summer months. And at prices so cheap your jaw will drop.
A few blocks west along Brighton Beach Avenue is the humongous supermarket Brighton Bazaar (1007 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-769-1700), where you'll find a carryout operation occupying nearly 100 stainless steel tubs, hot and cold, wherein frolic bacon-wrapped chickens filets, herb-flecked pickled veal tongues, tart fish salads, rich roast sturgeon, myriad permutations of eggplant, red beans dressed with garlic, fried pies called piroshky, and yellow apples and watermelon – somewhat surprisingly, both are lightly pickled. This is perfect beach food if you want to organize an impromptu picnic.
Next door is Kebeer (1003 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-934-9005), a German-themed Russian beer garden, serving pan-Soviet food (try the chicken tabaka) and a recently added menu of burgers and sausages that can be ordered and eaten fairly quickly. The beer selection is impressive, with lots of bottled Belgian selections and cheaper German brews on tap. A little further up Coney Island Avenue is Ukrainian stalwart Café Glechik (3159 Coney Island Avenue, 718-616-0766), sporting a giant soup pot teetering on the roof, cluing you in as to the place's country-style specialties, which run to "kulesh the meadow" (a dilled mushroom-barley potage) and a very nice rabbit stew.
Back on Brighton Beach Avenue tending in the direction of Coney Island proper are a number of worthy places, including Skovorodka ("The Skillet," 615 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-615-3096), an unpretentious restaurant offering a sit-down meal in relaxed surroundings from a pan-Soviet menu. Recommended are kutapi (a horseradish-dabbed pork sausage), the miniature lamb dumplings called pelmeni, and a thickly sliced whole pickled mackerel. For some street eats, check out the display of fried piroshki with a choice of myriad stuffings (my favorite: mashed potato) on the sidewalk in front of the cryptically named Tokyo Bay (309 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-513-6572), which is just another Russian supermarket.
The Turks seem to be moving into Brighton Beach in force, and there's a new branch of the Union City, New Jersey old-timer Beyti Kebab (414 Brighton Beach Avenue, 718-332-7900). Cooked over charcoal, the ground-lamb adana kebabs are particularly fine, and so are the feta-stuffed pastries called bureks and the cold-yogurt soup, cacik. Speaking of pastries, there's a new branch of the Istanbul coffee-and-dessert chain Gulluoglu (231 Brighton Beach Avenue, 347-577-6150) just across the street, offering more types of baklava than you can well imagine. If you're in a kinky mood, try one of the oddly dressed Turkish hot dogs.
If you're intent on dining at one of the boardwalk cafes, pick Volna (3145 Brighton 4th Street, 718-332-0341), though the food and drinks are more expensive than those at places in the shadow of the elevated tracks on Brighton Beach Avenue. Know that you're paying for the view, but the view is extraordinary.