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Best Caviar is at a Deli?

The caviar was only inevitable. Somehow, along the way, this year’s birthday had blurred with innumerable fellow celebrants’, expanding into Birthday Week, Birthday Month, and beyond. Well, take it from me ... a birthday that ends up with a three-day soak in a 40° Centigrade Costa Rican volcanic river will only end in a celebration heavily featuring the Mother of all Fish Eggs.

A fellow Sea-Goat, Valentyna, also longed for a festive celebration. Her Ukrainian origins inspired a joint cook-fest involving cabbage rolls, beef Stroganoff, and other Eastern European delights. I offered to supplement my Stroganoff with some caviar and vodka. After all, I’d seen all the right movies.

But where to find the best caviar at the best price? I figured Valya would know. Apart from being a naturally resourceful Capricorn, she’s part of a large community of Russian/Ukrainian émigrés here in San Diego County. Besides, she’d offered to hand-make the blini, the delicate buckwheat pancakes onto which one slathers as much caviar as one can buy, borrow or steal. It was up to me to come up with something fabulous, without breaking the bank.

Of course, Valya knew just the place to buy caviar. She recommended Continent Deli, which offers one of the city’s best selections of salmon, smoked fish and caviar. And much more.

Needless to say, the caviar was great. But it was the much more that brought me back. During my somewhat frantic search for the fish eggs, I’d noticed a few small tables and chairs set up as dining areas. On a second trip to Continent Deli, I discovered their small selection of deli sandwiches, but many more cold and hot dishes, as well. If you’re in the mood for anything from appetizers to desserts with a Russian accent — whether to take home or eat here — Continent sells it.

During a recent lunch break, I found myself hungry enough for the rich food common to this part of the world, so I started with some cold dishes as zakuski, or appetizers. The Spicy Carrots ($4.99/lb.), full of garlic bits and an invisible but powerful chili presence, provides a nice contrast to the blander, comfort-food spiciness of the other sampled dishes. The Beet Salad ($3.99/lb.) wasn’t quite as nice as Valya’s; if you’re new to this dish, however, try it. It’s surprisingly creamy and good enough to be a dessert. Other cold vegetable dishes to try include the marinated mushrooms: two kinds, cloud-ear and button. The cloud-ears were superb: tangy with a liquid, lingering texture.

Among the hot appetizers I enjoyed were the Stuffed Mushrooms ($7.99/lb.): light, rich and savory with a fluffy mixture of minced chicken and cheese. The potato and chicken fritter ($1.49) seemed almost like a knish, the potato creamy and delicious.

Piroshki here are more like Latin-American Empanadas, cheese- or chicken-filled turnovers. My own piroshki memories, of deep-fried, yeasty-doughed, rounded marvels filled with minced beef and onions from San Francisco’s Russian District, refused to lend these feeble substitutes any credibility.

The cabbage rolls were delicious: bursting with savory rice, carrot matchsticks and meat. If you eat in the store, be sure to grab a spoon so you can scoop up as much of the tangy, tomato-based sauce as possible. Better yet, ask for a slice of the Russian Black Rye bread and soak up all the sauce. Another main dish, the meat cutlet, turned out to be a basic version of meat loaf, but light, and nicely paired with the thick sour cream served alongside.

For those of non-Slavic origins, half the fun of eating here is that you have no idea what the next bite will bring: each dish a mystery for your tongue to solve. The deli sells a wide range of Russian goods: tea, sour creams, candy and soft drinks, sausage, bread, and even music. If the vacation plans don’t include a trip to Russian soil this year, try a jaunt to the University City area and explore this fun resource.

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  • City: La Jolla, CA 92037
  • Phone: (858) 623-0099
  • Name: Continent European & Russian Delicatessen
  • Address: 4150 Regents Park Road, Suite 110