Hidden restaurants usually fall into two categories: Those that cater to Wall Street types looking to impress on a second date, and those that don’t need to advertise, because they’re places so excellent and revered, word of mouth is all that is needed.
Located just below a chiropractic office in the basement of an East Village townhouse, Streecha Ukrainian Kitchen (33 East 7th Street, 212- 674-1615) is the latter, a place that a friend may tell you “is kind of hard to find.”
Even if you know the address, the two sheets of computer paper advertising its existence on a basement window outside don’t exactly draw attention. A flight of stairs leads you down into a longish hallway, and the first door on the left is where you’re headed. With its pale blue-on-blue paint scheme, kitschy holiday decorations, a few crosses, and religious-themed paintings, Streecha feels like the basement of a church circa 1974. And for good reason — that’s essentially what it is.
Streecha — which roughly translates to “meeting hall” — opened in the early 1970s as a way for St. George Ukrainian Church, located just across the street, to raise extra money for new schools and general upkeep. It’s still owned and operated by the church today.
Open Friday through Sunday from roughly 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., the basement is a haven for local Ukrainian expats and those New Yorkers looking for a taste of authentic Ukrainian fare. Cheap, fresh, and fast, Streecha serves a small menu heavy on flavor that barely touches your billfold. The standards are excellent. The beet borscht soup ($2) is a lighter version than normally found, with added lentil beans for texture (a nice touch). The stuffed cabbage ($4) is firm and still tender; the boiled kielbasa comes from East Village Meat Market, located just down the street.
However, the real draw of the place is in the varenyky, also known as dumplings or pierogi. Each Friday morning around 6 a.m., a team of seven Ukrainian women with a median age of 90 roll them by hand and stuff them with a mixture of potato and yellow cheddar cheese. Quickly boiled, they are served with small chopped golden onions in butter. They are super delicious and subtle, and around 1,500 are made and consumed each weekend.
“I know what the customer is going to have before they enter the door,” says JoAnn Costanzo, the face and maître d’ of Streecha. Costanzo knows everyone by name, and she often asks customers about their children and holiday plans. For years, she worked in the ER at St. Vincent’s hospital; she came to Streecha via St. George only a few years ago. She runs the small operation with pride and efficiency alongside the Brazilian-Ukrainian-American chef, Brother Joaozinho.
The food is served on paper plates, and diners sit on metal folding chairs at those long folding tables seen more often at farmers’ markets and high school basketball games. Fluorescent lights hang overhead. It seems the place could be entirely emptied in about 20 minutes. A surprisingly large kitchen is situated at the back of the restaurant, just past the small counter where Costanzo resides, taking orders. A small portable radio behind the counter is usually tuned to a station playing hits of the ’80s and ’90s. I’m not sure you can listen to Sade sing “Smooth Operator” while eating kielbasa in a basement anywhere else in the city. It’s pretty damn awesome.
On Saturdays, the line often stretches out the door as the place fills with Ukrainian families who just left school at the church. On Sundays, the crowds come in waves after the different Masses let out. It’s a communal feeling inside the basement — everyone seems to know each other. Kids eat fresh apple cider doughnuts while parents read Ukrainian newspapers and drink coffee.
Original and fun, Streecha is a weekend secret worth checking out.