The smell of curry, dumplings and butter seeps through the windows outside of Pel’meni in downtown Juneau. The restaurant is an Alaskan take on a classic Russian comfort food: dumplings.
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Yana White is from Russia and moved to Juneau from there in 2009. White said that she likes the food at Juneau’s Pel’meni shop but to her, it is missing the taste of Russia.
She grew up making pelmeni with her family once a month on Sundays. It was a laborious process that took hours, rolling out every circle of dough and putting the meat filling in for a hundred or so pelmeni. As a kid, she would make up any excuse to get out of making pelmeni.
But looking back now, she misses those times. For White, making pelmeni isn’t really about the food.
“It’s more about the family time that I had with my parents,” White said. “It’s the idea of togetherness, you know, when you sit together in the kitchen, and you talk about life. You talk about your school. You talk about your family members. And at the same time you’re making this nutritious, filling food.”
White still makes pelmeni but not as often as she would like. Recently, her daughter asked to make pelmeni with her. White hopes to make pelmeni with her soon, just like White did with her parents and grandparents in Russia.
“My daughter loves them, and she doesn’t eat them with traditional condiments such as sour cream or vinegar. She eats them with ketchup,” White said.
The pelmeni you find in Juneau are not quite traditional. They have a lot more toppings besides vinegar and sour cream — lots of butter, curry powder, cilantro and sriracha. And on the side, there’s a slice of fluffy rye bread.
The nontraditional toppings are additions that the owner Dave Bonk made. Bonk bought the restaurant in 1998 from an American expatriate who started the restaurant with the primary goal of trying to sell it and get back to Russia.
“We went there one night after hours and he said, ‘yeah, you wanna buy, you wanna take this over from me?’ And he’d only been doing it for like a month or two,” Bonk said.
All he wanted in return for the restaurant was a plane ticket to Russia.
At first, business was slow. The first day of business for him was July 3, the busiest night of the year. That night he only sold three orders.
But he built a reputation throughout the years. He said part of the reason for his success is that he never advertises.
Bonk used to make all the dumplings by hand. Sometimes it would take all night. Eventually, he converted a German sausage machine to make pelmeni, so he does not have to do that anymore.
“It’s by far the most, been the most fun I’ve had in anything, any job or any kind of occupation. It’s also been the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Bonk said.
One moment that really sticks out to Bonk to this day was when there was a huge line out the door to Pel’meni in 2001. He didn’t have TV where he lived at the time on North Douglas. Bonk asked people what was going on because that line wasn’t normal.
That was the day of 9/11. Someone in line told him what happened. When he asked them why they all came to Pel’meni, they said that it was the place they felt most comfortable. Or that they didn’t know where else to go.
This really showed Bonk what kind of place he had created with Pel’meni. And that day still remains one of the busiest lunches he’s ever had.
The restaurant has become a staple in the Juneau community. People who grew up in Juneau still reminisce about the times when pelmeni used to cost $5.
The current manager of the Juneau Pel’meni is Leighton Bullock. He has been the manager since April of this year.
“Like realistically, it’s one of the chillest spots in the world,” Bullock said. “You can always come in and get some good food that’s gonna make you feel good. And you’re gonna want to come back when you walk out the door.”
Pel’meni is open pretty much every day of the year. Bullock said the restaurant has been open every day since 2011, even during the pandemic.
It is also one of the few restaurants in downtown Juneau that is open late. That, combined with the low price, has made it a popular spot.
“You know, you get your high schoolers and you get your hipsters and you get your late-night partiers that come in and they’re just tossing numbers to you and saying, you know, ‘I need three. I need four. I need five,’” Bullock said.
For a long time, Pel’meni was just a Juneau thing. But it grew. First to Bellingham, where the owner Bonk lives now.
When Bonk moved down to Bellingham, Mark Moore took over the Juneau location. After working there for a long time, he was given the blessing from Bonk to expand Pel’meni.
Moore first opened up a shop in Sitka and now he has a new location in downtown Anchorage, on 434 K St.
David Clark lives in Anchorage but has been to Juneau many times and is a big fan. During his latest visit to Juneau’s Pel’meni, Clark had not been to the Anchorage location yet and was not sure how to feel about it.
“Yeah I would say, you know, it’s pretty solidly a Juneau thing,” Clark said. “I’m not sure how well it’s gonna, how long it’s gonna stay in Anchorage.”
Clark remembers the first time he had Pel’meni in 2014. He flew to Juneau to do some advocacy work in the Legislature, and everybody on the trip with him told him to go to Pel’meni. Once he tried it, he was hooked.
“It’s not just about gastronomy or, you know, what’s particularly like vibrant compared to another place,” Clark said. “For me it’s really just about what memories do you make here.”
One of his favorite recent memories was when he went to Pel’meni after hanging out with friends at a downtown outdoor bar.
“We ended up closing out the shop, you know, just sitting and laughing and talking about anything and everything,” Clark said.
Later that week, Clark went to Anchorage Pel’meni for the first time to see how it compared to Juneau.
The Anchorage shop is across the street from the Hotel Captain Cook in downtown and it’s set up to feel familiar for Pel’meni regulars. There is a vintage cash register at the counter and the essential question from the dumpling-slinger.
“Would you like meat or potato?” dumpling slinger Edouard Seryozhenkov asked Clark.
Waiting for his order, Clark looked around and said it is pretty easy to tell he is at a Pel’meni shop.
“Of course, just like in Juneau, there’s kind of like a little library going on of records and there’s also a record player …” Clark said. “This is definitely like a newer building I would say. So it doesn’t have that same rustic kind of homey feel like the Juneau Pel’menis does.”
Behind the counter, it was dumpling slinger Edouard Seryozhenkov’s second week on the job. Seryozhenkov is Russian, born in Anchorage, and grew up making similar dumplings with his family, though he’s never been to the flagship shop in Juneau.
“Here you dress them with all kinds of stuff like curry powder and sriracha sauce and cilantro,” Seryozhenkov said. “The Russian style is a little richer, more soupy. Yeah, to each their own.”
He said the first weekend the shop was open, it was slammed. Lunchtime on a weekday is pretty slow, but Seryozhenkov said that doesn’t mean the dumplings won’t catch on in Anchorage.
“I think this place works best late-night. Like, for sure, this place, like a Christmas tree, it’s all lit up. And if you can get people to walk here from the bars, it’s going to be poppin’,” Seryozhenkov said.
A few minutes later, dumplings on the table, David said the only noticeable difference between the two shops is the half-slice of bread that accompanies the pelmeni. In Juneau, it’s marbled rye, but in Anchorage, it’s plain old white bread until the rye comes in.
“They definitely taste fresh. I honestly can’t really tell the difference between Juneau and Anchorage,” Clark said.
Still, Clark said he is not sure the Anchorage Pel’meni will take off in the same way as Juneau’s or whether it will fill a similar niche as a community-building, late-night spot. He says only time will tell.