Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.
Imagine a childhood without packaged snacks: no Cheetos, no Goldfish, just home-cooked meals that, to a 5-year-old, taste of sad compromise. That was my reality growing up in the Soviet Union some thirty years ago. Now, imagine taking a train to a Lithuanian beach town where you’ll share a rented room with your mom and grandma. And on this vacation, you, the snack-deprived child, are suddenly faced with a new world of culinary options on the town’s boardwalk, like shockingly pink cotton candy and a street food vendor selling something called “fried bread.” The cotton candy is appalling, too sweet and artificial for your unprepared palate. The perfectly fried bits of rye bread, though? Divine.
Much later, I found out that rye bread with garlic—or Juoda duona su cesnaku—is a traditional Lithuanian snack, consisting of irregularly shaped chunks of amber rye bread, pan-fried in oil and rolled in minced garlic, salt, and occasionally grated cheese.
When it comes to world cuisines, Lithuania probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s list. Up until 1990, it was part of the USSR, declaring independence shortly before the Soviet Union fell apart. Since then, Lithuania has joined the EU and NATO, but mostly the country keeps to itself. It’s a small and humble nation, and so is the cuisine that comes out of it, with a heavily reliance on potatoes, cream, and mushrooms. In Communist Russia, however, the quiet republic offered a rare experience—the beach of the Baltic Sea where I, a pale Moscow kid, could get some sun and taste a bit of freedom. The fried bread, a garlic-loaded deviation from the tame dishes our landlady fed us, was as bold as the sea waves I encountered for the first time on that trip, and just as memorable.
Having carried a fond memory of those garlicky bites with me through the years, it seems serendipitous that, upon moving to the US six years ago, I found myself living in close proximity to Mama Papa Lithuania, an establishment that, you guessed it, sells this same fried rye bread. The intimate five-year-old restaurant and beer garden, owned by Vaidas Sukys and his mother, is the lone Lithuanian representative in the Bay Area (and beyond—the next closest Lithuanian spot is said to be all the way in Chicago). It’s located outside the city of San Francisco itself, on the adorable, vaguely-retro island of Alameda.
Inside the restaurant, on a shelf lined with pastries and cakes you can purchase to go, I spotted the fried bread, branded here as Chewy Garlicky Bites. It’s the most professional-looking product by far, packaged in a branded bag that lists all the ingredients: rye flour, sugar, yeast, caraway seed, salt, and organic garlic.
Rye bread might be divisive in America, but its earthiness is an essential part of a European upbringing. As soon as I opened the package on my way home from Alameda, the unmistakable aroma of fried garlic mixed with the rye’s sweetness hit my nostrils and, despite the pre-packaging, was instantly reminiscent of those warm snacks discovered so long ago on the boardwalk.
By the time I reached my driveway, the bag was empty and my heart was full. I was also quite full, literally. Chewy Garlicky Bites—6.35 oz of fried bread—is a full meal, if you ask me.
Ever since that discovery, I’ve diligently made the trip to Alameda almost every month. I always find an excuse—I’m going to a craft fair, or to the monthly antique market, or to play table tennis—but before I head back, I make a point to stop by Mama Papa Lithuania and pick up a couple of bags of Chewy Garlicky Bites. One is usually eaten on the ride home. Another is shoved to the back of the pantry, to be retrieved later when I’m in need of emergency comfort food.
These days, there’s no shortage of snacks around me; in fact, I have to avert my eyes to avoid the snack cornucopia of American grocery stores. Their abundance cancels out the excitement. But Garlicky Chewy Bites, emerging years ago amidst scarcity and bland plates of “proper" food, still bring back what it felt like to eat something indulgent for the very first time. And now that they’re a mere one-hour drive away—waiting in a hard-to-find, one-of-a-kind restaurant—nothing can keep us apart.