When Anna Motso graduated from South Seattle Community College’s pastry arts program, opening a coffee-and-pastry cafe intrigued her, but “there are little cafes everywhere in Seattle. It’d be like me opening a pho place,” she said. “Too much competition.”
Instead, she focused on her family’s favorite Ukrainian foods: pelmeni and vareniki. Those are Ukrainian-Russian dumplings filled with seasoned pork, chicken or potatoes, hand folded and boiled, then served with a plethora of sauces developed by Motso, who opened Vostok in 2013 Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood with her brother Andrey Tokar.
In November, Vostok expanded to downtown Tacoma, opening at 1126 Commerce St., next to Dunagan Brewing Co. and Mad Hat Tea, in a long, narrow space that’s minimally, but attractively, decorated with shades of gray, black and red. Diners order at the counter at the back, then find a seat among a handful of communal tables and a street-side stand-up bar.
The pork, chicken and potato dumplings are made to order with a list of mix-and-match sauces and add-ins — such as bacon, caramelized onions and Sriracha — that lend a modern interpretation to the old-world dumplings. Tongue-in-cheek nods are given to Russia in the artwork and menu names — “Rocky IV,” “Sputnik” and “Bay of Pigs.”
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Vostok’s dumplings are one of the best dining deals in downtown Tacoma, with a half order ($5.20-$5.50) enough for lunch; the full order ($9.25-$10) plenty for sharing. A slice of bread accompanies the dumplings. Only a few other menu items are served: sweet or savory piroshki are $4-$5; and vegan borscht soup, $4.75; cabbage salad, $3.50. Russian fries, an American-Ukrainian mashup, are $4.50.
A restaurant’s first six months in business are critical for establishing itself, and in that regard, Vostok has fluctuated, occasionally missing its mark for service and reliability.
I’ve found the restaurant unexpectedly closed with little notice. Hours have changed a handful of times without warning. It took me a few weeks to figure out they stopped serving dinner.
Service can be annoyingly bad. An attempt at a call-in order resulted in a counter worker putting the phone on the counter — for more than 10 minutes. I finally hung up. Counter workers were easily flustered and forgot simple things, such as beverages, without reminders. I once visited for lunch and left empty handed after an hour because the kitchen was understaffed and overwhelmed.
Those rough visits are precisely why I give a guarded recommendation for this restaurant after four visits. Go there knowing that you’ll be delighted by the food; but service and the particulars, such as operating hour changes, might annoy you.
Are its shaky days behind the restaurant? Motso hopes so. She’s optimistic about her restaurant’s ability to stay on its current successful track with more reliable employees, and my two most recent visits certainly support that she’s moving in the right direction. Counter help, timing and experiences seemed much improved.
Caveat: It’s common to wait 20 minutes for your food, and with a 10-minute boil time for the dumplings, which are always made to order, that’s completely acceptable. This is not fast food.
Motso’s adding new menu items, including a new sauce, a summer salad and a “crunch roll” filled with pork.
She’s also packaged pelmeni and vareniki by the pound ($9.25-$10); or in prepackaged servings for three, with a basic sauce ($20-$25). For a three-person serving with a specialty sauce, the cost is $40. The sauces are available packaged, $8.50-$10.
The bread is for sale — $7 for half a loaf and $10 for the full. The bread comes from the Ukrainian Bakery in Fife, Kusher Bakery. It’s just one example of the business partnerships Motso has forged. She works with Sonia’s Kitchen, a Russian food company in Auburn that makes Vostok’s pelmeni and vareniki using recipes by Motso, who previously spent 14-hour work days making the dumplings.
Despite its troubles, the restaurant’s food never let me down. It’s simple. It’s good. It’s perfect for lunch.
The pork and chicken pelmeni are shaped like tortellini, with dense, savory fillings. The potato vareniki is softer textured, with more surface area on the crescent-shaped dumpling.
A first visit should include pork pelmeni ($5.50 half/$10 large), with a dense, savory ground pork stuffing carrying a light tang, served “Ivan style” ($1.50 charge). That style comes with a barely there, but boldly seasoned garlic-herb oil sauce, caramelized onions and chopped bacon. For heat seekers, get the pork pelmeni with KGB sauce (no extra charge for regular sauces), a punchy cayenne-spiked dill sauce so spicy, my tongue still tingled a half hour later.
Silky-textured potato cheddar vareniki ($5.20 half/$9.25 full) served “Bay of Pigs Style” (75 cent charge) featured an oil-based thyme sauce, chopped green onions and a tangle of those sweet, slow-cooked caramelized onions. On another visit, I happily dug into the same garlicky potato vareniki, this time dressed in a “traditional” butter-vinegar sauce with a kicky dose of black pepper. Chicken pelmeni ($5.50 half/$10 full) works best with a more flavorful pairing, so get that “Ivan style” with garlic and bacon, or “Sputnik style” with that cayenne-dill KGB sauce, sauerkraut and a sweet lick of pineapple.
From the sides menu, Russian fries ($4.50) were those velvety soft potato vareniki, but deep fried until crunchy and coated in sour cream, bacon and green onions. They tasted like a deep fried spin on a loaded baked potato, and satisfied my inner glutton. Red cabbage salad ($3.50) was much lighter, and so much more healthy, with a tangy sour cream-mustard dressing.
If you get one thing as a side, make it the terrific sauerkraut piroshki (listed as $3.50 on the menu, but I was charged $4), a fried turnover that carried the crackle of puff pastry, stuffed with a sticky filling of sauerkraut and carrots. The piroshki also come in sweet flavors — apple and cherry.
Vostok Dumpling House
Where: 1126 Commerce St., Tacoma; 253-301-1085; facebook.com/vostokdh.
Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and noon-4 p.m. Saturdays.
Recommendation: Recommended highly, for value and terrific execution, but with reservations, because of past service problems.
Drink menu: Eastern European beers; juices and soda.
Barriers: None noted.
Seating: Mostly communal, with a standing bar to eat at the front of the restaurant.
Noise: Fine, even at capacity.