Russian is the third-most-spoken language in Oregon. It’s no secret that large numbers of Russian and Eastern European families are sprinkled all throughout the metropolitan area. This no doubt proved to be an appealing fact for Bonnie Morales, owner of Kachka, a Russian restaurant in Southeast Portland.
Kachka is actually a Belarusian word for “duck.” The story behind the name is both sobering and compelling. Morales’ family is Jewish and during World War II her father’s mother escaped a doomed ghetto in Germany and headed towards Russia. Along the way she was stopped by a German village warden who was convinced she was Jewish.
After she told him that she was a Ukrainian peasant on a trip to visit family in Russia, he asked her how to say ‘duck’ in Ukrainian. Although she was Belarusian, Morales’ grandmother knew there was some overlap in the language and prayed as she said: “kachka.”
Coincidentally, it was the same word for both languages. Not long after providing the correct answer, Morales’ grandmother was let go and she continued on her journey east, later meeting her husband and eventually giving birth to Bonnie’s father.
Bonnie Morales herself is a first-generation American with Russian parents. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. She grew up in Chicago and decided to pursue a career in food, eventually attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Upon finishing her stint in Culinary School, Bonnie returned to Chicago where she worked in several back- and front-of-house jobs. Though she viewed the food culture of her Russian heritage fondly, she had come to find it to be somewhat bland. She wanted to open a restaurant paying tribute to her heritage, but would potential customers find the food of her heritage to be as underwhelming as she did?
Originally born Bonnie Frumkin, it wasn’t until she met her soon-to-be husband Israel Morales that her eyes were opened to the possibilities of her native cuisine. Israel was not familiar with food from former Soviet countries and it was in his delight that Bonnie saw the potential come alive.
With that potential in mind, they immediately decided to chase the idea that a restaurant devoted to food from Eastern Europe to the steppes belongs in Portland. No doubt this was, and largely still is, a food culture that is sadly underrepresented in Portland, despite the large Russian population.
Determined to rectify that problem, Bonnie and Israel moved to Portland in 2010 with a plan to open up a restaurant that paid homage to the memory of Bonnie’s grandmother and her incredible story. They would call it Kachka.
After finding a suitable business partner and putting the plan together, the pioneering couple found a 1,600-square-foot space on the east side of the Willamette. This intimate location, at 720 Southeast Grand Avenue, would prove to be just the space they needed to bring a touch of Russia to Portland.
While getting the space ready and planning for Kachka’s introduction to the city, Bonnie began to meticulously plan a menu that would do her cultural roots justice. Having already abandoned the idea that Eastern European and Russian food is bland, she set out to create a menu that would provide mouthwatering treats in traditional style.
While growing up in Chicago, Bonnie’s parents would throw huge parties for friends and extended family members. It was during these parties where there would be long tables covered end-to end in a wide array of Russian culinary delights.
One such delight was Zakusi, which is often compared to tapas. Zakusi would include an assortment of cold meats, cured fish, pickled vegetables and more. According to Russian tradition it was customary to eat zakusi by taking a shot or sip of a beverage before each meal. Bonnie decided that this was what she would build her menu around, small dishes intended to chase drinks.
One such small dish is festively called a Herring Under Fur Coat, described as 7 layer dip, but Russian and actually a salad, composed of pickled herring potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, mayo and hard-boiled eggs. These are ingredients that scream Russian in a very sophisticated way.
Of course they couldn’t forget the beverage shot. This customary tip of the glass would prove to be a crucial aspect of the dining experience. Today the restaurant offers more than 50 brands of vodka from Russia all the way to here in Oregon. One such example is the Baba Yaga, which is made with chamomile vodka, liquore Strega and lemon.
Main entrees provide some familiar names with unique ingredients. The Stroganoff, for instance provides an authentic experience with beef tongue, egg noodles, mushroom and cognac Smetana sauce. The beef tongue itself has a crispy exterior with a gooey interior and comes with a semisweet onion sauce that is particularly delicious.
As always, no Russian or Eastern European offering is complete without a fish or meat and cheese board. These delicious trays come with such offerings as beet cured coho, Scottish mackerel, cold smoked capitan and cod liver pashtet, basturma, veal roulette, Russian cheese and spicy mustard.
Expect the authenticity of the food to match that of the décor. The establishment style is somewhat babushka meets hipster. Various soviet-era knickknacks are strewn about among understated styling elements and plenty of rustic woodwork.
Having filled a niche that probably should have been filled a long time ago, Bonnie and Israel Morales are in it for the long-haul. They love their home in Portland and are excited to bring the best of Russia and Eastern Europe to Portland’s discerning palates.
For more information on Kachka, visit their website or give them a call at 503-235-0059 to make a reservation.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, journalist, and copywriter who has been writing professionally for over nine years. He currently works from his home in Vancouver, Washington and is excited to bring you the best that the Portland restaurant scene has to offer.