Stuck in Lviv: 3 Gluten-free Eats & the Man from Uzbekistan

“Just one more…” I said, grinning as I reserved another night with Iryna, the friendly Ukrainian receptionist at Coffee Home Hostel in Liviv.1

She laughed. By the fifth or sixth night of my originally-planned two night stay we had both begun to harbor the suspicion that it probably wouldn’t be just one more night. When will the American actually leave?

A quick search online proved I hadn’t been the only one with the happy problem of finding myself stuck in Lviv.

Sunset over Lviv, Ukraine.
Sunset over Lviv, Ukraine.
Inside Kryjivka, the not-so-secret restaurant themed after a Ukrainian Insurgent Army hideout.
Inside Kryjivka, the not-so-secret restaurant themed after a Ukrainian Insurgent Army hideout.

It had only taken one night to become completely enamored by the maze-like, cobbled and dimly lit streets of the city center that grew ripe with seemingly endless surprises and oddities in the warm, European summer evenings. Rickety communist era trolleys rolled by, haunting the streets like ghosts from a forgotten age, while trumpets serenaded, accordions wheezed, and stranger instruments I don’t know the names of all coaxingly invited me to stop thinking and doing –if only for a moment– and just listen to the music.

Pop-up markets, hookah-smoking cafe culture, technicolored candy shops, the wafting smells of chocolate and even a wine & waffle shop that offered  glasses of Ukrainian wine straight from the barrel for fourteen Hryvnia2 reward the wanderer who ventures around “just one more” bend in the alley.

Sharing much of its culture with neighboring Poland, Lviv at times resembled a rough-and-tumble version of Krakow while maintaining a strong and rich Ukrainian identity that made it uniquely and delightfully its own. With a complex history and its juxtaposition of catholic churches littered along the dirty streets busily promoting Lviv’s much more down-to-earth forms of self-transcendence, I suspect any attempt to describe this colorful city will inevitably fall short of its goal.

Street performers and their admirers on the streets of Lviv, Ukraine.
Street performers and their admirers on the streets of Lviv, Ukraine.

I’d end up staying for eight nights, seven of them by choice.3

With its themed restaurants and diverse and affordable menus, Lviv is an up-and-coming foodies paradise. I found myself sitting down at time and time again at three places in particular to thoroughly explore their menus and its gastronomic delights and although I’m no foodie, I thought I’d pretend I was for a short while and share with you three of my favorite gluten-free eats in Lviv.

GREEN

In the city center, this vegetarian cafe became my go-to spot to get my daily vitamin and nutrient fix. Friendly staff, chilled out music, and a laid back crowd all made me feel more like I was on the coast of California somewhere rather than in the landlocked western region of Ukraine. Only the bill reminded me I wasn’t.

Green offers vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian options. Total bill for my meal below was 155 UAH (~$6.25)

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SMAKOLYK

Just outside the city center and a block from one of Lviv’s better outdoor gear stores, where I was waiting for my new backpack I had ordered to arrive4, I had the happy excuse for dropping into Smakolyk for a meal more than once. Just don’t ask me to pronounce the name.

Another low-key cafe with a notably western vibe to it, Smakolyk not only had gluten-free bread but on my last visit the staff brought it out without my even mentioning it. The food was as good as the service. My favorites were the gold borsch soup (which is common in Eastern Europe and is incredibly refreshing on a hot summer day) and the hot chocolate, a Lviv specialty.

Smakolyk offers gluten-free and vegetarian options. Total bill for the meal below was 204 UAH (~$8.22)

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CHAIKHANA SAMARKAND

A fifteen minute walk out of the city center and down an unassuming staircase on a nondescript street corner, I had trouble finding Chaikhana Samarkand at first. I descended off the stark street and was immediately immersed in a warm and vibrant atmosphere —the type that comes from a passionate and intimate attention to detail that often seems to border on obsession. The traditional Uzbeki food served was delicious but the real reason this became my favorite place in Lviv was the owners who ran the place.

Originally from Uzbekistan, Abraham and Nina had left their home country after a relative of theirs sustained a head injury in the 2014 riots in Kiev’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. A string of riots which would go on to be interpreted as the beginning of the Ukrainian Revolution still playing out in the far eastern areas of the country.

Uzbekistan, with it’s proximity to Russia is heavily influenced by the Russian media. Abraham watched as the Russian media spun the events as a fascist, neo-nazi uprising.. He witnessed, to his dismay, his neighbors and fellow countrymen and women swallowing Russia’s version of events whole as truth. He had family injured there in the events of that day in Maidan after a peaceful protest was cracked down on, resulting in the authorities violently attacking the demonstrators.

In the wake of this incident as well as to get out from under a corrupt and oppressive Uzbekistan government which was unfriendly to entrepreneurs, Nina and Abraham picked up and moved to Lviv in Ukraine to build a better life. Although he had worked in a restaurant for eighteen years, Abraham had never ran his own restaurant before opening the doors of Chaikhana Samarkand a year ago in July, 2015.

Abraham’s kind and unassuming demeanor was reflected in the dishes he personally brought out to me (even though there were staff there for that) which were simple, straightforward and tasty. Despite his modest admission that his restaurant wasn’t “professional”, there was an obvious care towards presentation, detail and service —all the hallmarks of a true professional at work.

The food he served refueled the body, the kind service and warm atmosphere he cultivated revitalized the spirit, but it was his story that nourished the soul.

I’ll have to eat there just one more time.

Chaikhana Samarkand offers gluten-free and vegetarian options. The meal below (which also included two glasses of red wine) came out to 182 UAH (~$7.33).

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Abraham, Nina and I all wearing Tyubeteikas and Abraham wearing his Uzbeki chapan.
Abraham, Nina and I wearing Tyubeteikas and Abraham also wearing his traditional Uzbeki chapan.
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  1.  Iryna gave me my first lesson in making Turkish coffee, which I failed at miserably. Where are the coffee machines?!
  2. I was kicked out of said wine and waffle shop no less than three nights at closing time.
  3. The last day was spent on a not-so-free-of-charge seven-hour tour of the bureaucratic beast that is the Ukrainian culture department as I learned that shipping artwork out Ukraine is not for the easily demoralized.
  4. Osprey’s Exos 58. So excited about this bad boy!

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.