Natalia’s puts Russian spin on diner fare

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Why: From the street, Natalia’s Cafè looks like it could double as the diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Not the lonely people part, fish-bowled in a semi-deserted diner on a desolate city street, but the old-school diner part. It’s homespun, with a neon sign in the street corner window announcing that it’s open, barstools at a counter and a row of booth seats lining a cheery window where potted plants, in various states of health, hold court. The place called to me. I had to give it a whirl.

Atmosphere: Walk into Natalia’s and find yourself transported to another era, where mom and pop diners invite regulars to sit down for a spell. Food is cooked and grilled behind the counter. A dessert case showcases fresh-baked pies and patrons linger in booths or read newspapers at the counter.

What I tried: When I discovered Natalia’s the first time, I came in for a cup of coffee. That was until a plate of biscuits and gravy floated by, destined for a diner at a nearby table. I had to try it then and I had to try it again for this review. My dining companion and I agreed to split an order of biscuits and gravy. He ordered corned beef and hash while I ordered the Russian goulash.

The biscuits and gravy were just as I had discovered the week before: A couple of splayed-open biscuits slathered in white gravy, with generous hunks of meat. It’s more like the military version of SOS, but with more flavor, creamy gravy and a liberal helping of meat, all atop warm, fluffy biscuits.

“Mmm,” my dining companion murmured when he tried a bite.

In a later interview, Natalia Zhikhareva, Natalia’s Café owner, said she makes the dish with ground pork, not hamburger. Zhikhareva, who grew up in Russia, said she logged a year poring over biscuit and gravy recipes until she perfected what she now serves.

We reached a consensus, and one that neither of us came to lightly: Best biscuits and gravy we’ve ever tried — and, yes, I’ve spent a few years in the South. Order this and you’ll leave with happy taste buds and a full stomach.

The corned beef hash arrived with shredded potatoes, onions, a couple of eggs and corned beef. The Russian goulash came in a serving bowl with chunks of beef, carrots, potatoes, onions and noodles, unlike the Italian-style goulash that I’m accustomed to.

The corned beef and hash was tasty enough, with chucks of corned beef and enough food on the plate to serve two or three people.

The goulash was more like a savory stew, with chunks of vegetables and meat in nearly every bite. And, like the corned beef and hash dish, there was plenty to share.

Zhikhareva said the Russian goulash dish was something she learned to cook when she lived in Russia, where she says she made five meals each day.

All of it was tasty and generous in its serving size. No excuse to leave this diner hungry.

Highlights beyond what I tried: For breakfast, if you could tear me away from the biscuits and gravy, I’m intrigued by the Russian meat-stuffed crepes, which are crepes stuffed with caramelized onions and ground beef. For a lunch order, I’d try the stuffed cabbage, a cabbage roll stuffed with ground beef, rice and onions and topped with tomato sauce.

Other observations: This is a casual dining experience with an eclectic offering of food – both American diner-style and traditional Russian. It’s a fusion worth savoring. The service was friendly and warm, too, with servers taking the time to answer questions. I just wish they were open for dinner, but Zhikhareva said she doesn’t get enough business to stay open into the evening.

Cost: Biscuits and gravy will run you about $6. Figure $6 to $9 for breakfast and $8 to $10 for lunch.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Where: 437 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas.

Information: 360-834-3421

Health score: Natalia’s Cafe received a health score of zero Aug. 2. Zero is a perfect score. Clark County Public Health closes restaurants that score 100 or higher. For information, call 360-397-8428.