Thursday, January 7, 2010

Na Zdrowie! Polonia Restaurant

Last we spoke I referred to Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup as being like Grandma's own industrial-sized kitchen complete with antique curio cabinets and classic Americana accents. And this is still true, but only if Grandma lives in a wealthy suburb filled with 3,000 sq. ft. new construction homes that come standard with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

If, however, Grandma is a slightly-hunched-over relic from the Old Country with hands gnarled from years of manual labor and an accent so thick that, when she does bother to speak in English, you can't understand her anyway, and she lives in a very modest pre-World War II home with peeling wallpaper and warped linoleum floors that has a certain indefinable smell to it, the smell you have come to know simply as "Grandma smell"...then welcome to Polonia.

"It smells like Grandma's house," my dining partner remarked to me as we walked through the doors. Memories of my own maternal great-grandmothers (both from Belgium) came flooding back to me...granted, the smells from a Flemish kitchen are a bit different than those coming from a Pole's, but the Old-Wordlyness and affinity for antique knick-knacks proudly displayed above forced-air radiators is the same.

The menu is packed full of traditional Polish favorites: pierogies and potato pancakes, schnitzel and sausage, kiszka and kraut, golabki and goulash. (Okay, I might be lying about the kiszka, or "blood sausage," but I did have the same "blood" soup Anthony Bourdain sampled on his visit to the restaurant last January.)

My meal began with the Duck Soup, or czernina--also known as "duck blood soup." Why? Because it's made with duck blood. Duck blood tastes like Mayan chocolate...cardamom...maybe a little nutmeg? It was rich with an overwhelming depth of flavor, reminding me in some ways of a good mole (which is a complicated sauce with many layers of hard-to-pinpoint tastes when done well...and it's hard to do well). There is a definite metalic note to the soup (ya know, from the blood and all), but it is otherwise quite robust. The fine noodles help to offset the strong flavor.

The soup was included as part of my Polish Combination Plate: stuffed cabbage with tomato sauce, Polish fresh sausage, pierogies, mashed potatoes with brown gravy and kraut. I swapped out the mashed potatoes for potato noodles and added a potato say potato, I say potahto. Po-tay-toe. (And the one gay male reading this who has actually seen the Jennifer Saunders/Dawn French "Jordan and Jodie" bits just laughed his arse off.)

Everything was amazing. Honest, good old-fashioned, home-cooked amazing. The pierogies: potato (POTATO! heh) with Velveeta cheese, fried onions, and bacon...honestly not my favorite pierogies ever as (and I believe I have expressed this before) I don't like bacon on anything other than the side of my eggs, but tasty despite that. It was fried so the dough was just the right amount of firmness, the filling a smooth potato/cheese/bacon/onion puree. You know those potato skins you order at bars with the cheese and the bacon and whatnot? Kind of like that, only inside-out, blended, and in a noodle.

The potato pancake: deep-fried greasy crispy diet-friendly heaven. (Part of that was a lie.) The potato noodles: very dense, and a little bland, though tasty when dipped in the tomato sauce served with.... The stuffed cabbage. Or, what was called "Pigs in a Blanket" when I was growing up. Which, come to find out later, "Pigs in a Blanket" in most American homes is actually hot dogs or sausages wrapped in some sort of bread dough. Only to find out even LATER that "Pigs in a Blanket" actually does refer to stuffed cabbage in certain cultures, particularly Slavik culture. And though I am a lot of things, Slavik is not one.

But I digress.

The "proper" Polish name for stuffed cabbage is golabki, and is made with boiled cabbage leaves wrapped around minced meat (usually pork, though sometimes beef) and served with a thin tomato sauce. It is wholly untrendy, unglamorous, and mighty satisfying. Hearty, flavorful, and filling, and also chock-full of childhood memories.

And last, the Polish fresh sausage, which--along with the stuffed cabbage, sauerkraut, and pierogis--is all homemade. There is a distinct difference between pre-packaged over-processed sausage that spends months of its life in freezers and sausage that is ground and cased fresh. The casing has more of a crunch, the meat is much more tender and doesn't always keep its rigid form, and each bite tastes slightly different depending on the spices concentrated in it. This sausage had bursts of peppercorn and different spices, and was so tender it almost fell apart once cut into.
There was also the kraut but I can't tell you anything about that because I don't eat kraut. Blecky.

I think I cleared my plate save for one lone potato noodle (and that's a whole lot of potato for one meal), but I wasn't quite done shoveling food into my face yet.

I binge eat; don't judge me.

So I ordered up a lingonberry crepe for dessert. Simple yet divine. Spare the butter, spoil the eater; that's what I say. Fried up and covered in chocolate sauce and whipped cream, it was the perfect end to my 2,000 calorie meal.

The best part is: all this shameless gorging cost under $11.00. There isn't an item on the menu priced over $10.00, and that includes their generous entress. They also have daily specials, such as Tuesdays and Thursdays when you can get half a boiled chicken for $6.95. It's nice to see that the prices are as nostalgic as the decor at Polonia.

The menu is filled with other Polish and local favorites, like Goulash and City Chicken...which is apparently something of a regional rarity, which I did not know before. Thanks Mr. Bourdain! You can also pair your traditional Polish dishes with bonafide Polish beer--Zywiec, Okocim, Warka. None of it is that great, but if you're a Heineken drinker--and by that I mean, if you like Bud Light--then you'll like it just dandy. You can also sample some Polish vodkas, like Luksusowa and...Belvedere. Hm.

Polonia Restaurant has been operating in some capacity since 1927, and is truly a relic--or rather, treasure--of a former era. The murals of the Old Country, the antique plates on display lining the walls, chicken needlepoint, and all polka, all the time. (I did hear the "Pennsylvania Polka," which fans of Groundhog Day would appreciate.) Even the 20-something waitress was Polish. Not that that's terribly noteworthy but it adds to the novelty of the place.

But the bottom line is this: the food is good. Really effing good. And cheap. Really effing cheap. And much like pretty much everywhere else in Poletown, the vibe is comfortable, friendly, and welcoming, and even though you don't know everyone in the room it kind of feels like you might since its got that Old World neighborly thing going on. For the culture tourists out there, this is a great place to experience authentic Polish cuisine in an atmosphere that looks like it might have been plucked straight from the Motherland before Nazi occupation. For foodies looking for the place that has the best such and such, I guarantee you'll find such and such something here. For those who simply enjoy a good meal at a good price, this Okocim's for you. Na zdrowie!