You know which condiment is underrated? Sour cream.
This contention will be staunchly contested by savvy eaters who are already in the habit of plopping sour cream atop blintzes and baking it into cakes. But sour cream appreciation is sadly stunted in the U.S., where the crème fraiche cousin is relegated to stilling the heat of chili and helping to keep diced chives from falling out of baked potatoes. Its career-defining role in the American pantry is playing opposite of onions in potato chips, but maltodextrin powder barely counts as something that comes from a cow.
In this country, ‘twas always thus. In 1958, the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned a study of sour cream’s market potential on behalf of dairy farmers who were stuck with a milkfat surplus when butter consumption dipped after World War II. Researchers collected an astounding 1,413 different objections to sour cream, chief among them that sour cream was fresh cream that had spoiled before selling and been cleverly repackaged by sinister grocers.
Eastern Europeans know better. Rich, fatty sour cream is so full-bodied and inherently luxurious that one beloved Polish dessert involves cooked white rice, white sugar, sour cream and berries. That’s it. That’s the dish.
Of course, sour cream doesn’t just show up for sweets. High-quality sour cream is equally stunning in the company of savories, as the menu at the terrifically good new location of Euro Foods Bakery & Café reminds diners again and again. Eating at Euro Foods, you feel a bit like a monochromatic painter, adding strokes of weight and tang to long-cooked beef and thick-skinned dumplings. On the right day, on the right dish, the results can come close to a masterpiece.
Euro Foods is new to Old Towne Road but not to West Ashley. It previously had a 13-year run on Ashley River Road, where it operated exclusively as a grocery store. Now the space bearing the Euro Foods name is split almost exactly in half, with a brightly lit retail section to the right and a counter-service café to the left.
The shop’s shelves are stocked with attractively packaged tins of smoked fish; jars of pickles; boxes of buckwheat, and everything else required to put together a Slavic feast from scratch. Still, that’s a relatively daunting prospect to those not fluent in the region’s cuisine. So while customers from places such as Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and Poland hook a right when they enter, according to employees, just about everyone else heads left to claim one of the café’s four wooden tables, or a seat at the counter along the street-facing window.
Employees are generally reluctant to pinpoint from where they emigrated, and the menu designed by owners Maka Aptsiaur and Sasha Pavlichenko is similarly nonspecific. There are chalkboard specials on most days, but the heart of the menu is a selection of Eastern European greatest hits, such as bigos, plov and pelmeni. Regardless of what you order, you’re guaranteed to end up with something folksy and warm, so making a choice comes down to whether your preferred starch is potatoes, rice or wheat in the form of floury dough.
Potentially less familiar to American-born diners is the beverage selection, which is wholly nonalcoholic until Euro Foods is otherwise licensed, although patrons are welcome to bring their own beer or wine. Yet even the brown-baggers should consider fishing in Euro Foods’ drinks cooler for a chilled bottle of kvass, which roughly approximates the experience of slurping rye bread through a straw, or bracing tarragon lemonade.
Also in the nearly nonnegotiable category, at least for meat eaters, is borscht. Literally a world away from the thick purple-red beet sludge that’s sold under the soup’s name domestically, the borscht at Euro Foods is brothy and beefy, with the sweetness of reduced onions rounding out the sour character of the liquid. Garnished with slivered carrots as well as beets, the borscht registers as remarkably rich, particularly if one’s mental picture of borscht is tied up with Anatevka, the shtetl in "Fiddler on the Roof."
Beets get their star turn in a set of pkhali, a traditional Georgian dip usually rendered in English as “vegetable paste.” Thickened with walnuts and seasoned with garlic, a molded scoop of pkhali is vaguely reminiscent of muhammara, the Syrian pepper dip popular in the Middle East. But pkhali doesn’t hide behind heat, nor is it sodden with syrup. Instead, it relies exclusively on freshness to impress, which it does three times over at Euro Foods, in green (spinach); red (beets) and white (beans). It wouldn’t hurt to ask for extra toasted pita bread.
Pkhali is listed among the entrees, but it’s easily the best appetizer on offer, although the deep-fried beef turnovers are just a sour cream splash away from satisfying. It’s harder to salvage the tough and rubbery pierogi, even when they’re stuffed with poppy seed filling and relocated to the dessert section. Other dishes that come up short include the zapiekanka, a French-bread pizza topped with sliced hot dogs that’s championed by late-night partiers in Poland: Sober eaters may struggle to appreciate its charms.
If there’s a dish that the Euro Foods crew would likely insist you try, it’s the khachapuri, a hollowed-out bread boat so laden with butter, egg yolks and cheese that it nearly tips over into the pastry column. Over the past decade, countless American food writers have torn away a piece of the surrounding bronzed crust; swiped it through the molten cheese and slapped the table, announcing that Georgian food is sure to sweep the country.
Khachapuri has made a dent on Instagram, but the version at Euro Foods may not persuade you to invest in yeasty shoe-shaped bread futures. For one thing, it’s served just a few degrees too cool, so the initial thrill of risking a tongue scorched by bubbly milkfat is muted, and the tangy cheese sets a little lumpier than it should. But once the components have fully mingled, perhaps just before you’re about to consider dessert, you may find it’s a welcome addition to the table.
An American-born eater might think of khachapuri as the most baroque possible version of egg in a hat, the breakfast classic for which a slice of toast supplies both side and structure. By contrast, there is nothing elaborate about my favorite Euro Foods entrée, three tightly bundled cabbage rolls doused in robust marinara sauce and accompanied by a dome of mashed potatoes. The meaty rolls, crammed with ground beef and rice, are beautifully seasoned. And all it takes to prod them toward magnificence is a streak of sour cream.