Traipsing Around Town: Taking a Break From Those PB&Js at the Russian Tea House

By Taylor Uggla

The Russian Tea House on University Avenue, nestled amongst a Wendy’s and the Midway YMCA, is only open from 11-3 Tuesday through Friday, a time frame that may seem limiting. However, there’s no better way to break up the monotony that is a winter day at Macalester than by popping over for some delicious vegetarian borscht. The outstanding customer service alone will make you happy that you skipped out on Café Mac or that sandwich stored in your school bag.Nikolai and Linda Alenov first opened the Russian Tea House in 1978, when, as Linda told me, they were starving artists looking for a way to survive. The business is based in an old Victorian house, and when it began, the Alenovs lived on the top floor and catered to customers below. In those days, the Russian Tea House was simply for take-out, but since then, the family has moved a few blocks away and converted their old living space into a dining area. The rest room, which still contains a bathtub with feet, is reminiscent of this change. I felt like I was having lunch at a friend’s, especially when I looked out the window and saw a row of residential houses parading down the side street.

What really made me feel comfortable, though, were the Alenovs themselves. When I walked in the door, Linda immediately asked me if she could help me with my selection (not in that irritating, I-don’t-really-want-to-talk-to-you-and-I-hate-my-job kind of way, but in a genuine desire for assistance). She explained everything on the menu to me in detail, and I was contented to see her husband cooking away behind her. Linda and Nikolai were both full of smiles, and I could tell that they really connect with all of their customers. As I sat upstairs in the linoleum-tiled dining room with my meal, surrounded by Russian knickknacks and pictures of Moscow, I could hear them converse for several minutes at a time with everyone that walked in. There’s even a picture of the two of them hanging on the wall.

Of course, the food pleased me as well. I ordered a hot bowl of borscht, which was sweet and filled with beets, carrots, and beans, for only $2.80. Linda threw in a freshly baked bread roll, and I also enjoyed a huge container of vinaigrette potato salad. This dish, filled with much of the same ingredients as the borscht and offered for the same price, had a tangy and slightly spicy flavor that kept me coming back for more. It was also so plentiful that I had enough to take home for later. Its purple and pink colors only added to its appeal. I finished up with an $0.80 cup of tea (which comes with a free refill and honey) and a delicious bag of powdered, buttery Russian teacakes. I couldn’t have been happier.

The Russian Tea House is perfect for Macalester students. It’s nearby, and the menu, although small, is surprisingly cheap. You can order cabbage and meat rolls or piroshki made with Angus beef, and as I left I saw some fresh poppy seed chocolate rolls coming out of the oven. (Linda even lets you choose which one you want with a genial, “Which one looks good to ya?”) On Fridays, a $4.68 beef stroganoff is offered over varaniki (potato dumplings), and you can get three of the dumplings with onion and butter sauce for less than half the price. I really don’t know what more you could ask for.

You might not be pleased with the restaurant’s Styrofoam cups and plastic cutlery, but it’s a small matter compared with the overall charm of the place. Head on down for lunch next week-you won’t regret it.

Russian Tea House
1758 University Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
651-646-4144