By Larry Levine –
We came for the solidarity and stayed for the food. And now, a year later, on the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we’re here again, at Traktir. For the solidarity and the food.
Traktir is a Ukrainian restaurant in Tarzana CA, just a few miles from our home, and in West Hollywood. I had seen the sign often as I traveled Ventura Blvd. We had been to the original restaurant in West Hollywood a few times but gave up because of dinner-hour traffic. But for some unexplainable reason, we had not visited the Tarzana site.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022. To show solidarity with the Ukrainians, we made a reservation for a weeknight dinner. We hoped to find tables filled with Americans doing the same thing. Didn’t happen that way. We were the only non-Ukrainians in the room. It’s been like that on every successive visit, Jennifer and me, with Ukrainians at virtually every other table. That hasn’t slowed us. We estimate we’ve been there some two dozen times in the year since that first visit.
Traktir, Ukrainian for tavern, is owned by Ukrainian natives Oleg and Rina Atroshenko. Oleg was born in Kyiv He came to the U.S. with his parents when he was 10 years old. They settled in the West Hollywood area. Oleg attended elementary and junior high school in the area and graduated at Hollywood High. After attending L.A. Valley Community College, he worked as a dental technician for 10 years and then in the medical supply business for a dozen years. Always an enthusiastic cook, Oleg moved into the restaurant business when an uncle spotted the West Hollywood location that would become the first Traktir.
Rina was born in Chernivtsi. She came to Los Angeles with her parents in 1975. They settled in West Los Angeles, where she attended elementary and junior high school before graduating at Fairfax High. At the time, Rina says, they were the only Russian family at the school. Soon after, there was an influx of Russian immigration into the area. Plummer Park in West Hollywood became a social gathering center for Russian immigrants. That’s where, as teenagers, Oleg and Rina met. Rina went on to Santa Monica Community College and got a job selling auto insurance. That led to opening an insurance agency with her sister.
My ancestry tracks back to that same area of the globe. My paternal grandparents were from Minsk in what now is Belarus, adjacent to Ukraine. The history of both areas is written of violence and turmoil, with various nations seizing control at different times. In one 1,300-year period, control of Minsk changed 25 times.
Ukraine was freed of Russian control when the USSR broke apart in 1991.Then, in 2014 Russia grabbed the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. A faction favoring separation from Russia and another backing unification with Russia have been at odds from the start.
When Jennifer and I looked at the menu that first night at Traktir it all seemed warmly familiar. We ordered Herring Moscovsky (herring and onions on buttered brown bread), Herring with Potatoes, Chicken Blintzes in mushroom sauce, Vareniki, Potato Peroshki, and Pierogi.
Too much food. A lot too much. Portions are large and intended for sharing. Ukrainian diners, as we observed during later visits, order multiple appetizers and entrees family style and pass the food. The more people at the table the larger number and variety of dishes to share. We learned from that first night that when it’s just the two of us we must narrow our choices. Herring Moscovsky has been renamed Herring Traktir in defiance of the Russian invasion and has been our first course during each of our visits.
We’ve eaten a meat borsch that’s Oleg’s specialty. For Rina it’s butternut squash soup or a variety of salads. So far we’ve tried beef stroganoff in an authentic Ukrainian preparation, marinated beef tongue different than Jewish deli tongue, eggplant spread similar to but slightly different than my mother’s Romanian version, mushrooms Julian, chicken shashlik, pan sautéed game hen, and perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful lamb chops. Still ahead are branzino, lamb kabobs, sturgeon, cold beet borsh in the summer, and an assortment of other inviting appetizers and entrées.
The customer base at the original Traktir in West Hollywood is younger and more lively now, Oleg says. Rina explains the Tarzana location came into being because many of the Ukrainian customers from the West Hollywood area moved to the San Fernando Valley and urged them to open a place where they could dine out on food from the old country. A party of 17 Ukrainian men at a table on the night of the anniversary of the Russian invasion proved their presence in the Valley. Plates of appetizers were on their table when we entered at 6 p.m. and waves of food still were arriving when we left after dinner. And, of course, many bottles of vodka were opened and toasts offered, all in Ukrainian. Among the specialty vodkas offered along with more traditional ones at Traktir are cranberry, raspberry, black currant, cherry, dill pickle called “the hangover cure”, and horseradish.
As is the case with most Americans, my knowledge of Ukraine was sparce before the Russian invasion. Many Americans called the nation The Ukraine until they learned otherwise from news coverage of the war.
Ukraine ranks 77th on the Human Development Index of developing countries. It’s the poorest country in Europe. So, why does Russia care so much about recapturing it? Ego is one likely driving influence. But most of it more likely has to do with natural resources. The nation yields immense amounts of lithium and natural gas. It also was a major exporter of grains before the invasion.
Ukraine is the second largest county in Europe, behind only Russia and the eighth most populous nation. Ukrainian is the language of 78 percent of the population, with 17 percent speaking Russian. Some 80 percent of the Russian speaking population in L.A. is Ukrainian, Oleg says, and most of the Russian Jewish residents in L.A. are from Ukraine.
When they opened the original Traktir in West Hollywood, most of the customers were business travelers or tourists, Rina says. That has shifted and the largest portion of customers now are immigrants living in the area and their American-born children and grandchildren.
Neither Oleg nor Rina have family in Ukraine today. But they have friends there, visitors they met at one of the restaurants. They think frequently of those people, communicate with some of them, and worry about their safety as war continues to rage. In the meantime, they trundle back and forth between West Hollywood and Tarzana to oversee the operation of their two restaurants that serve up a thoughtful and delicious assortment of foods from the old country, restaurants to which we plan to return frequently, hopefully in a time when there is no more war.
18588 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, CA
8151 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA