Where can you find authentic pirozhki, borscht, shuba and pelmeni in Palo Alto? In the lobby of a tech company's office complex, of course.
I'm talking about Beet Cafe, an adorable Eastern European eatery tucked inside the lobby of the AOL building on Page Mill Road. It's run by a Ukranian couple and is open to the public -- not just AOL workers -- Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
As the hours indicate, Beet Cafe is geared toward the workday crowd. It's perfect for picking up a quick breakfast, lunch or coffee; even better enjoyed over a leisurely work meeting.
And as the name indicates, beets play a leading role here. They're in salads, wraps, sandwiches, smoothies. There's even a beet quesadilla (beets, arugula, pesto and mozzarella). Those who are beet-averse, not to worry: There are plenty of other options.
For those who do want to try a dish with the brilliant-hued root vegetable, go traditional with a bowl of borscht -- a simple Ukranian soup made from beets, potatoes, carrots, celery and onion.
"It's not a table with food if there is not borscht," said owner Irina Khart.
Khart came to the Bay Area with her husband five years ago. As a stay-at-home mother in Ukraine, she often cooked, and longed to pursue her "big dream" of opening a restaurant. They snagged the AOL spot after Ground Up, a coffee shop, shuttered last year.
Beet Cafe's borscht has a rich pink color and comes with chunks of potato and shredded beet. It's savory and comforting, but very light and not at all overwhelming. (Khart said they make it with vegetable instead of the traditional pork broth for more veggie-leaning Americans.) A small bowl goes for $3.99 and a large for $4.99.
The shawarma wrap ($7.99), which can come with chicken or without, is enormous, fresh and delicious. Choose a spinach, tomato or whole-wheat wrap, which will then be stuffed to the gills with cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes, lettuce, red onions and a tangy yogurt sauce. You can opt to add quinoa, garbanzos or beet, and I recommend all of the above. All the ingredients are perfectly proportioned (who doesn't hate when wraps or burritos have too much rice, or not enough of one ingredient?), and each bite is a balanced delight of flavors.
On a first visit, I went vegetarian with the wrap; on a second visit, I tried to again, but the woman taking my order must have misheard me, and chicken was added. It was a delicious mistake. The chicken is juicy, moist, warm and adds some extra protein.
By the way -- this wrap is huge. It's well suited to splitting with a friend, or taking half home to eat later.
Other sandwiches (most of which can also be ordered in wrap form) range from basic turkey, chicken salad or salami to homemade meatballs, smoked salmon or tuna apple salad (tuna, apple, celery, red onions, mayo). All hover around $7 or $8. Don't miss the beet sandwich: beets, arugula, goat cheese, cranberries and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
The baby kale and beet salad ($7.65) was generously topped with beets, Brussels sprouts, red and green cabbage, avocado, pomegranate, walnuts and a hard-boiled egg. Feta cheese was served on the side. The menu advertises a lemon and olive oil dressing, though we received none. The salad came in a plastic to-go box, though we enjoyed it on an outside patio. If you're not taking a rushed lunch to go, you might want to indicate that when placing your order. (But if you are, take advantage of their online ordering.)
A "special menu" has more traditional Eastern European items: golubsty (cabbage rolls stuffed with turkey, rice and vegetables and then steamed in tomato sauce), shuba (herring salad, usually layered with chopped pickled herring, eggs, beets, carrots, potatoes and dressing), pelmeni (Russian stuffed dumplings) and vareniki (Russian potato dumplings).
There are also pirozhki: small savory pocket pies filled with some variation of meat, cheese, egg, rice, vegetables ($2.75 each). These menu items attract many Russian and Ukranian customers who live in this area, Khart said. Part of her "big dream" is to open a large, Ikea-like grab-and-go restaurant with more Ukranian food.
Beet Cafe brews up Vertigo Coffee, making all the usual options, plus the more unusual Turkish coffee, which is made by boiling finely ground, roasted coffee beans in a pot with sugar. It's served in a small cup that allows the grounds to settle at the bottom.
The smoothies are also excellent. Go healthy with the kale-banana (made with your choice of milk and flax seeds; I also added peanut butter) or sweet with the strawberry oatmeal breakfast smoothie (soy milk, rolled oats, bananas, strawberries and sugar). All are $4.60, but additions or ingredient swaps will cost you extra.
The perk of being off the beaten path inside an office building, at least for the customers: There's hardly ever a wait. You'll find Beet Cafe on the first floor of AOL, in between AOL's reception and First Floor Labs, a company that provides free office space to fledgling startups and entrepreneurs.
There are a few small tables inside, as well as a large, wooden communal table (on which you'll always find complimentary chips with homemade salsa) and some tables outside. It's quiet and low-key.
Everything at Beet Cafe is clearly made with care, and can't be found anywhere else in the area. That's the definition of a hidden gem.
395 Page Mill Road, Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.