The closest experience I've had to Ukrainian cuisine is a handful of Russian dishes, including a vodka-soaked banquet, but I can't say much other than that it was delicious. The vodka wasn't bad, either. Although I don't know much about Ukrainian cooking, I know when food tastes good. The meal I had at Village House Kalina was one of the best meals I've had in a while.
In a tiny strip mall in La Mesa, Village House Kalina (8302 Parkway Drive) is sandwiched between a taco shop and a 7-Eleven. The interior is filled with knick-knacks and folk art, making the small restaurant seem like a little hamlet in the middle of La Mesa.
Our server patiently explained the menu items to us. I was familiar with the cold and marinated chopped salads that were a great start to the meal. We went with the salad platter, featuring six piles of vegetables soaked in mixtures of sour cream, mayonnaise and herbs. There was the more tried-and-true potato salad, made with a smidge of dill and with peas mixed in. There were two beet salads—one with cubed beets and vinegar, the other with shredded beets, walnuts and mayonnaise. The other three salads featured roasted eggplant, carrot and cabbage. Served with a yeasty hot roll and dense slices of wheat bread, they kicked off a meal that was skillfully executed and comforting in its simplicity.
Next up were vareniky, dumplings not unlike the Chinese version. They're made with a similar doughy wrapper and feature fillings like cheese-and-potato and onions-and-potato. With a mountain of sour cream, the texture was perfect, but they were a little bland—a minor blip compared with the rest of our meal.
Beef stroganoff, often a sludgy brown mess served in cafeterias, was a rich stew with fresh mushrooms and complex flavors. I was happily eating the sauce by the spoonful, but my husband, the stroganoff's rightful owner, slapped me back to my plate of holubsti. Holubsti are cabbage rolls, and it's a dish I know well. Village House Kalina makes them hearty with two very big rolls filled with rice and beef and topped with tomato sauce. The side of bulgur wheat cooked with bits of vegetables and herbs was a nice touch. Chicken Kiev was perfectly fried, a crisp chicken / garlic / butter roulade that makes its own sauce as you slice into it.
No great meal is complete without dessert, and our server had an air of encouraging insistence that couldn't be ignored. Our choices were walnut cake and honey cake with dried cherries. My dining companions and I opted for both, and it was a brilliant move. Both cakes were delicious with seven very thin layers of cake filled with whipped cream. The walnut cake was thoroughly covered with crushed walnuts and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Is Village House Kalina a paragon of Ukrainian cooking? I have no idea. Is it tasty? Damn straight.