Finding Salvation in Carrollton's Russian Banya
Surely, I have sinned. There can be no other explanation for my current predicament. That I've found myself in a rundown suburban strip mall might be punishment enough, but my immediate surroundings are actually hostile. The ambient temperature is searing and the air is thick and humid. It's dark and I can barely breathe. I am in the hell box that is Carrollton's Russian Banya.
This eclectic spa opened seven years ago, when owner Tony, who refuses to give his last name, decided Dallas needed a Russian bathhouse. Despite the Rosemeade Parkway address, this café/torture cave faces Marsh Lane. You can't miss the red lettering above the doors and the ornate painting that obscures the windows.
Inside, three separate saunas wait to wring toxins from your soul. The Finnish version is just like every sauna you've ever baked yourself in, and the steam room feels a lot like Houston. But the Russian sauna will test your sanity.
I'm sitting on the lowest deck, covering my face with my hands to keep my eyelids from peeling back. According to the brochure I was handed when I arrived, the banya often tops 200 degrees — a temperature not far from where pitmasters smoke meat. I'm rendering like a brisket. Sweat beads on my skin and runs in rivulets down my back. It drips from my nose to the floor, pat-pat-pat like a metronome.
I'm doing this because sadists say it's good for me. I'm also doing this because it brings me closer to the Banya's pelmini, which are likely the best dumplings you can find in Carrollton, Russia or anywhere else.
You'll get them out in the café area, which is right next to the saunas and in full view of a plunge pool, where if you're into such things, (da?) you can catch the occasional flash of a pasty-white derrière. The whole space is outfitted with plastic patio furniture and the walls are painted with logs like a log cabin from Sesame Street. You won't focus on the décor for long, though, once your nostrils fill with the rich smell of butter and dill.
Each pelmini looks like a delicate belly button, stuffed with a small marble of ground beef. They float in a buttery broth that soothes like your mother's chicken soup. It doesn't hurt that you can eat them in the café just a few feet from the banya while draped in only a bathrobe.
You don't have to eat in the café, but you should. And if you're going to pay the $25 admission price — plus rental fees for the robe and the sandals if you've not brought your own — you might as well commit to the experience. Bring a bottle of vodka and make sure it's a big one. Tony frowns on smaller bottles. After all, "This is Russian place!"
Tony is an unlikely restaurateur. A long goatee bound in rubber bands extends from his chin, and his accent's as thick as his borscht. His arms are covered with tattoos, and there's a scar on his midsection, which you will notice because he's shirtless more often than not. Like the opera and J.R.R. Tolkien novels, appreciating the banya can require a suspension of disbelief if you're conditioned to traditional restaurants. The vodka helps.
Order a plate of pickles and ask your waitress to bring you glasses for your booze. If this sounds strange, recall the pickleback that's a popular sidecar in America's hipster bars these days, the acidity neutralizing the alcohol's burn. Slug a shot of vodka and bite into a pickled cucumber or green tomato. Be careful, though: It works.
Order the plate of cold fish because it's simple, honest and generous. The massive plate of smoked salmon and butterfish goes perfectly with the pumpernickel loaves cut into irregular slices. The bread is fresh one day, a little stale the next, but it's always baked in the kitchen, a rarity among much finer restaurants in Dallas.
It seems everything is hand-crafted here — including those dumplings. In addition to the pelmini, there are half-moon-shaped vareniki dumplings, filled with a smooth potato purée and topped with sliced onions sautéed till they're crispy. And manti the size of bed pillows, filled with lamb and onion. Each of these dumplings is served with sour cream, and they all eat decadently.
That same lamb-and-onion mixture makes its way into a samsa, a golden, rich pastry with a glossy coat. Grab a spoonful of the garlicky chile sauce that's a little sweet, a lot spicy, and load up.
There are dishes you will recognize, like an outstanding magenta-colored borscht with tiny bits of beef floating about. There are more dishes you won't, like herring under a fur coat. It could be called Herring in a Technicolor Dream Coat for its vibrancy. Picture a layer of shredded potatoes and pickled herring forming a base. On top, shredded carrots add vivid orange, and shredded beets an inky purple. Mayonnaise, turned hot pink by beet juice, and a hard-boiled egg finely shredded into a protein fuzz cap off the multi-layered dish, which looks like a chilled slice of lasagna on psychedelics. Grab a massive forkful and heap it on a slice of pumpernickel. It's delicious, assuming you have a taste for pickled herring.
The desserts, like many dishes here, are Siberian-big, so consider sharing. There's a honey cake that pairs endless layers of pastry with a creamy filling, and baklava slices the size of a deck of cards. You won't leave hungry.
Once you're sated, it's time to consider another trip to the sauna. You'll be looser for your second go around and able to sit for longer. Maybe Tony is in the banya too, beating the sin out of some pour soul with a bundle of oak branches and leaves that have been soaking in almost-boiling water. Maybe there's a small child in a felt hat who somehow seems oblivious to the temperature. When the sweat flows like your skin is a sieve, it's time to endure the plunge pool, a baptism in water so cold it forces the air from your lungs in a guttural whoosh. Just try to remain silent as you drop into 42-degree water after sitting in an oven. It's impossible.
It's also invigorating. You've just eaten dishes you won't find anywhere in Dallas, in a dining room with more nudity than you'll encounter in some time. The banya isn't perfect — the robes and towels have started to fray, the felt on the pool table is worn and the restaurant occasionally closes early — but there's a likeable grit here that is lacking at the larger super spas that dot the area.
And there's another benefit, especially this time of year. Stepping outside with a warm vodka glow and my transgressions washed away in a deluge of sweat, I feel like I've been cast anew. Suddenly, Dallas' hottest summer day feels absolutely tolerable. Nice, even.
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