I can count on one hand how many cafes here serve pelmeni dumplings, piroshki, Ukrainian kotleti, supple cabbage rolls coated in a tangy sauce and bowls of borscht.
The opening of a cafe serving Eastern European cuisine is such a score to the area. Enter Marvel Bay Cafe, a 60-seat casual cafe operating inside the building that holds Marvel Food & Deli, the Eastern European grocery store with a bakery and deli.
Best friends and travel buddies Yelena Ivantsov and Alice Shkarina opened the cafe in November. Ivantsov’s father owns Marvel Food & Deli, which also has a location in Auburn.
He was pondering expanding the grocery store’s small hot foods counter— which I’ve been a fan of for years — into the store’s neighboring banquet facility. Ivantsov said she and Shkarina were eager to open their own cafe and offered to take over the space.
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Ivantsov and Shkarina say the concept of Marvel Bay Cafe was inspired by their travels. When asked which destination they considered the ultimate food destination, one said Greece and the other Italy, then agreed it was a tie between those two.
“We’ve put a lot of time and energy in traveling the last 10 years. It seems everywhere we go, the first pick is to find the best cafe in the area,” said Shkarina.
“Cafeteria style is pretty big in Europe,” said Ivantsov. “So that’s where we headed with this. Everything in Europe we saw was cafeteria stye, which is cool. You pick and choose what you want and you get your food right away.”
Enter the charming cafe and find a roomy space with seating for groups large and small.
Order at the counter and pick from an assortment of a half dozen hot entrees, borscht and a daily soup and a selection of side dishes and prepared salads. All are dished up immediately from the case in small ($5.95), medium ($6.95) or large ($8.95) plates.
The entree selection was broader than European fare. I spotted southern-style oven-baked ribs, chili and chicken teriyaki.
“It’s a combination of really good home-cooked food,” said Shkarina, who said they like to swap out dishes frequently in the hot case to keep an interesting variety.
Ivantsov added that their food draws inspiration broadly from Europe — from Germany to Greece to Italy — but they make sure to always stock Eastern Europe favorites, too.
“There’s a big population in the area from those countries, and they grew up eating that food,” said Ivantsov, who said they frequently hear from diners, “I haven’t eaten this since I was a child.”
Diners also can order pelmeni, which is boiled-to-order, as well as made-to-order crepes, at the front counter (those are shuttled separately to a diner’s table and do take a few minutes to prep). The bakery case also holds breakfast sandwiches, pastries and desserts the owners prepare every day.
For sweets lovers, both owners noted their affinity for chocolate-hazelnut spread. They make Nutella-filled baklava and Nutella-filled crepes, but also be sure to peruse their croissants, cookies, biscotti, amaretto cookies, Danish and other pastries to pair with their coffee service. They found a Lynden coffee roaster to supply the beans roasted to their specification.
“It’s local and fresh, organic, fair trade, a medium espresso roast. Every shot that comes out is pure perfection, it never fails,” said Shkarina.
Here’s a first-bite tour:
Wildly affordable: A small plate of from-the-deli-case food is $5.95, a medium is $6.95 and $8.95 for the big plates. A bowl of freshly-cooked pelmeni dumplings goes for $6. Bowls of soup with bread are under $5. Did I mention the on-site baked goods that are 60 cents to around $3 each? Bargain eating, all of that.
The hot case selection: It changes daily, so these might not be available every visit, but I enjoyed crunchy panko-breaded chicken kotleti, a Ukrainian specialty that tasted something like a chicken croquette. Stuffed cabbage rolls carried a tangy tomato sauce. Beef-and-cheddar piroshki were huge, football shaped and carried a bit of a tang in the seasoning. Ukrainian-style borscht was served hot, thick with cubed meat and potatoes, and with a flavor more meaty than earthy.
Oven-baked ribs carried a sticky barbecue sauce and a bowl of chili was thick and mildly spiced. Chicken teriyaki tasted sweet-and-salty, but tamed some with the rice served with it.
Sauteed vegetables and dense mashed potatoes also were offered as side dishes.
The pelmeni: Save room for a bowl of pelmeni, the boiled dumplings (also sold in the freezer case next door). Boiled to order and served with a pat of butter plopped on top, a sprinkle of fresh dill and a small container of sour cream to swirl into the dumplings ($6). The pelmeni comes with meat or potatoes and cabbage and there are also sweet dumplings filled with ricotta.
Next door: Save time to wander the grocery store next door. There’s a bakery stocked with many kinds of piroshki, a wide selection of bread, a deli area, freezer case and an entire aisle devoted to chocolates (many of which are geared for grownups — they’re filled with liquor).
Marvel Bay Cafe
Where: 301 133rd St. S., Tacoma (inside Marvel Food & Deli)
Hours: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.