There's not a lot of Central Asian food in the Dallas area — and there is a lot of it, at the same time.
The Silk Road, threading its way across mountain ranges and deserts between Europe, Persia and China, carried recipes along with its cargo for centuries. Turkic peoples from the region brought their foods with them on waves of migration and invasion.
The result is that Central Asia was one of the world’s original culinary melting pots. You can get an idea of the extent by looking at the menu at Bubala Cafe, a Russian and Uzbek restaurant that opened in North Dallas in December.
Bubala Cafe offers Russian favorites such as borscht alongside a hearty variety of kebabs. Lagman, the soup with beef and hand-pulled noodles, is a culinary and linguistic cousin of Chinese la mian. The plump Uzbek dumplings called manti are a relative of tiny Turkish dumplings also named manti. And samsas, the meat-filled pastries here, bear some resemblance to samosas.
Bubala Cafe’s food is the product of the Margulis family, natives of Uzbekistan who arrived in Dallas via Russia 31 years ago.
“It was my dad’s dream to always open a restaurant,” says Sima Bell about her father, Zinovy Margulis. “None of us really had any restaurant experience or knowledge. It was really just a passion project.”
Everyone in the family, including Sima’s parents, husband and sister, chips in after working at their day jobs, alongside a trio of chefs from different corners of Eurasia: a Turkish kebab and meat cook, an Uzbek bread and pastry chef and a versatile soups-and-desserts utility player from Kazakhstan.
The result is a sort of all-Asian highlight reel.
“While our background is Uzbek, we wanted to make a diverse Russian menu,” Bell says. “We have dishes from Georgia, Ukraine, central Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. We took the best dishes from everywhere and combined them.”
Many of the menu’s stars are found in its assortment of dumplings and breads. There’s a constellation of dumplings here, from tiny, ring-shaped pelimeny to enormous manti. The pelimeny, filled with beef, cooked in broth and showered in parsley, are little delights, the dough folded into petite, rounded hats and served perfectly tender with a side cup of sour cream ($10).
The manti’s huge size — four are $12 — puts the emphasis on the mild-flavored filling of lamb and sweet onions. Vareniky, another Russian staple, are available in a savory version stuffed with potatoes ($9) or as a dessert, filled with ultra-tart, tongue-puckering sour cherries ($10).
The breads include a homemade Uzbek loaf ($4) and a series of khachapuri, the round or oval-shaped filled breads from the Caucasus. Bubala Cafe is currently the only place in North Texas to get any khachapuri, which is a shame for us, but a smart move for them, because these breads are worth driving for.
The Instagram star is the adjarian khachapuri, a canoe-shaped loaf filled with cheese and topped, for the last five minutes of baking, with egg yolk ($13). Megrelian khachapuri might look simpler — a round, pizza-like bread topped with a blizzard of different cheeses — but the dough must be carefully folded over at the edges ($12).
Pro tip: Save some leftover Megrelian khachapuri, if you can resist the cheesy goodness, for breakfast the next day.
Samsa, the pastry stuffed with ground lamb, differs from samosas in shape, which is not quite round with pointed ends and a spiral pattern swirling across the top ($8 for two).
Bubala Cafe’s kebabs are almost great. Each platter ($13 for chicken, $14 for ground beef, $14 or $15 for various kinds of lamb) comes with a big handful of grilled vegetables, a salad of thinly sliced red onions and a nearly paper-thin blanket of flatbread, which sits under the meat and catches its juices.
The weak point is that the kebabs are grilled to well-done, either cooked too long or too close to the flame. That means the ground meat kebabs, called lula kebabs, are a better buy, with their flakes of parsley and higher fat content. Lula kebabs are common across Central Asia and the Caucasus mountains, and they’re frequently wrapped in the flatbread to make an impromptu sandwich.
There aren’t a lot of vegetables around at Bubala Cafe, unless you count the extensive list of Western salads, including a Caesar and a caprese. But there is adjapsandali, a Caucasus dish of roasted eggplant and bell peppers served in a bowl ($9). Bubala Cafe’s rendition is so oily it’s practically a stew, but the oil is olive oil and, with perhaps a little draining, the dish is actually healthy. The vegetables’ flavors meld comfortingly together.
Bubala Cafe opened just months before coronavirus struck the United States, and the restaurant’s been following its own path. The initial four-page menu, encompassing everything the team wanted to cook, has been pared down to a more sensible two pages. Everyone in the Margulis family has worked just about every job in the restaurant.
“We’re definitely not like your traditional restaurant where there’s standard procedures and rules,” Bell says. “We’ve all been the janitor, we’ve all waited, we’ve all helped prepare food, we’ve all taken reservations.”
All except one: Zinovy Margulis, Bell’s father and the motivating force behind the whole business. Margulis keeps one job to himself, entrusted to nobody else, which is the preparation of the weekend special dish plov, a rice-and-beef specialty he tends for hours in an enormous cauldron-like pot called a kazan ($14).
Even plov is evidence of the ways Central Asian food brings together the cuisines of the rest of the continent. You’ve probably tried something similar, but not quite like it in the form of its cousins, pulao and pilaf. In fact, that’s a summary of Bubala Cafe’s menu as a whole: You’ve probably tried something similar, but there’s nothing else in town like it.
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