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Quick! To the Borsch Mobile!

A taste of Russian-Ukrainian nostalgia, updated for the food truck generation.

SLIDESHOW

Igor Teplitsky (left) and Kirill Deninzon set up the Borsch Mobile truck near Union Square.

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Hot borsch comes with a side of rye bread.

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The decidedly nontraditional beef-tongue sandwich.

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When Ukrainian immigrants Kirill Deninzon and Igor Teplitsky decided to start a food truck intended to evoke bittersweet memories of the Soviet Union, coming up with a suitable name was no easy task. For a while, the San Francisco residents liked Truck Trotsky, but they eventually reconsidered, given the potentially divergent political opinions of their customers-to-be. By the time the truck launched in January, they’d settled on Borsch Mobile—like the Batmobile, except dedicated not to vigilantism but to the less morally ambiguous task of peddling large quantities of hot beet soup and other Russian-Ukrainian specialties to hungry customers.

In the enterprising world of fledgling pop-up chefs and food truck entrepreneurs, Borsch Mobile’s story is a familiar one: Two longtime corporate types—­Deninzon in biotech research, Teplitsky in real estate appraisal—left the grind of jobs they didn’t love in order to pursue their deep-rooted passion for cooking. The two had both found San Francisco to be seriously lacking in options for a quick, casual Russian meal at lunchtime, especially outside the Richmond district. And there were no Russian food trucks at all.

Every aspect of Borsch Mobile is heavy with nostalgia for Soviet-era Russia and Ukraine. (Teplitsky left the Soviet Union in 1979, when he was 11; Deninzon, who departed in the mid-’90s, was a teenager when Ukraine declared its independence in 1991.) The eye-catching mural on the truck’s exterior, of a smiling blonde ladling soup from a giant pot, was painted by the Russian artist Valery Barykin, whose work blends the styles of Soviet-era propaganda posters and 1940s American pinup art. Every meal comes with a Mishka Kosolapy chocolate, with cute illustrated bears on the wrapper—perhaps the most iconic Soviet candy.

And the food itself? “Everything we serve reminds me of home,” Teplitsky says. Many of the dishes are things that his mother and grandmother cooked for him. There are pelmeni, a type of Russian dumpling, filled with spiced meat and topped with sour cream. There are slices of salo, a cured pork fatback similar to Italian lardo, served with a smear of mustard on top of dark rye bread—a drinking snack that’s ubiquitous in Ukraine as a companion to vodka. And the borsch (or borscht) that inspired the truck’s name is another Ukrainian specialty that both chefs grew up on. The dill-forward vegetarian version they serve at Borsch Mobile is loaded with cabbage, carrots, onions, and beets, with a generous dollop of sour cream to add a hit of tangy richness.

All these dishes are served more or less the traditional way. But some modern upgrades are evident: Take what is probably Borsch Mobile’s most popular item, the beef-tongue sandwich. Growing up in Ukraine, Teplitsky hated beef tongue, which his grandmother served as a cold cut, garnished only with a bit of chopped garlic and parsley. “So,” he says, “I needed to figure out, how would I like to eat it?”

The answer was to turn it into a sandwich—one with Bay Area influences: a toasted, garlic-rubbed torta-style deli roll, slathers of sriracha aioli and garlic aioli, pickled red onions, crisp lettuce, and slices of tomato. The tongue itself is still served cold, but its earthy gaminess is tempered by all those bright, crunchy, spicy elements, resulting in something like a flavorful twist on a BLT. It’s not a dish you’d ever have found in the Soviet Union. But here in the Bay Area, it’s a sign that Russian and Ukrainian cooking is alive, vibrant, and rolling into a bright capitalist future. 

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco 

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