Latvians Like Johnny Cash

Riga, Latvia

Crossing multiple countries in one day is monumentally disorienting. Upon our arrival in Latvia’s historic capital, Riga, we’ve driven through the night, and haven’t eaten anything of any substance since our meal in Krakow 24 hours ago.

“We could eat the McLavash,” Andrew says. He points to a corner McDonald’s, featuring an advertisement for what looks like a kind of ethnic hamburger.

Instead, we stumble around Riga’s winding, centuries-old streets. Since Latvia gained its independence in 1991 when communism crumbled, it has readily embraced Western tastes. Coffee shops and cocktail bars abound, as well as countless cafés serving familiar edibles.

“That’s a beautiful burrito,” Mims says, pointing at a sunglass-wearing gentleman’s salsa-topped meal. “That means this place is either the best idea ever, or the worst.”

That’s how we find ourselves at a sidewalk table at Shot Café. Inside is a dimly lit bar playing Johnny Cash tunes and serving potent liquor (hence the name). The menu features mismatched meals like fish and chips, club sandwiches, a handful of Latvian dishes (“meat soup” and “fried bread”), and the aforementioned burritos.

We order some cold half-liters of the local, light Lacplesis beer, the “traditional Latvian cheese plate” (Brie, cheddar, and jack), and the fried bread. The latter is pan-fried triangles of brown bread coated with garlic that you dip in a miniature pot of mayonnaise.

We also order fish and chips: crisp, battered cod chunks wrapped in newspaper. The chips are mushy but include hunks of deep-fried cauliflower and peppers. It’s far better than what we ate in London, but the burrito is on a par with Taco Bell—unspiced beef beside bland onions; thick sour cream. My dill-flecked Latvian meat soup is like hearty Campbell’s, full of tender stewed beef. It’s all filling, but leaves us wanting more from Latvia.