Interstate 80 is, by and large, a lonely road, a land of one or two gas stations on the nearly empty interchanges, maybe a tiny Mom and Pop diner. And the slice from the Lewisburg exit to Lock Haven is one of its loneliest stretches.
But, at the Jersey Shore Exit, there is a new respite for traveler and diner alike—an Armenian/Azerbaijani/Russian restaurant. And, as luck would have it, this restaurant is open later than any restaurant in the county—until midnight, in fact (only a twenty-four-hour gas station is open later). Welcome to Kavkaz Middle Eastern Restaurant, located at Exit 192 (3379 E. Valley Road in Loganton, to be exact; (570) 725-2323).
The restaurant, owned by Jack Galachyan, an Armenian who arrived in this country in the 1980s, has been open only eight months. The sign outside says Middle Eastern cuisine, but that is to tell people not familiar with food from the Russian Federation what to expect. For this restaurant is here to serve a special clientele.
There are many Russian truckers on the road, Jack explains, “Uzbek, Russian, Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani...many Russian people drive trucks.”
It explains the hours, for Kavkaz opens at noon, and the truckers start arriving at around 3 p.m.
Russian truck drivers? Indeed. It seems that our national trucking industry has attracted people who hail from the old USSR, much like Greeks in restaurants, and South Asian families in the hotel business. Even Time magazine did a short article a few years ago about the need for more truckers in a nation that delivers the majority of its goods by truck, and about the ethnic Russian Federation men who were helping to fill the employment gap in this industry.
With big truck stops only thirty-five to fifty miles away, why would a trucker stop on this desolate stretch of road? Why, for the food, of course. Everything, but everything, is made fresh to order, and seasoned just like they do in the Motherland. For the Moldavian truck driver that stopped, it’s a welcome change from fast food and a place where he can have a meal “like my country.” But this is not just good Russian food. This is simple, good food. The shashliki (like shish kebob) is marinated for a day, then grilled over a hardwood charcoal fire and offered with rice. They offer chicken, pork, beef, lamb, and halal lamb. There are homemade soups, including Borscht, salads, several hot dishes like chicken plov, and a simply delicious dish called homade (filled with potatoes, meat, and vegetables). As Jack explains, although there are so many dishes that come from the Caucuses (the region of the Russian Federation that borders Turkey, where he’s from), the dishes he puts on the menu are beloved all over the region and beyond to the rest of Russia.
But any meal at Kavkaz must include the amazing homemade breads baked to order on the premises. A brunch specialty is khachapuri ajarski, which is two eggs and a mixture of cheeses wrapped in a bread that is baked, then filled and baked again. It is a meal in itself. There are breads filled with meat, with cheese, with tomatoes and cheese, and just plain.
To create this little piece of Russia away from home, Jack has two chefs, one from Moscow, one from St. Petersburg, who can not only create this love letter to the Caucuses, but can create many other types of cuisine. And, if they can grow the little restaurant/truck stop, there will be even more. For Jack loves this little piece of Pennsylvania, up in the mountains, so much like the land he left. “I like it here. More trees, more nature...” But a remote location means it takes more work and time for people to find you.
His staff shares the passion. Mark Smith from McElhattan started a short time ago and has moved from dishwasher to cook, and says that the folks who work here will do whatever job needs to be done to keep Kavkaz running and serving people. “It’s like a family,” he says.
But don’t expect a lavish dining area. This crew spends the money on the creation of great food. But do expect room for a party, large or small. The restaurant is BYOB, so you can bring along some beer or wine. And, if you need to hurry on your way, call and order ahead. Many of the breads take thirty to forty-five minutes from order to table—they really are baking to order! Do look at the chef specials, often with ingredients foreign to Americans, and delicious. If you can, come with friends and order several dishes to share. The staff and Jack will be happy to help you and tell you about this cuisine. After all, they came from half a world away to bring it to you.