Not Your Babcia's Pierogi | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Not Your Babcia's Pierogi 

A Polish immigrant and a Japanese-trained Mexican-American chef put an inventive twist on central European cuisine.

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Jolly Inn

6501 W. Irving Park | 773-736-7606

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

This Polish buffet is similar to the Red Apple but homier. For $7.95 ($9.95 on weekends) you get a choice of meats—baked or broasted chicken, roast pork, Polish sausage, meatballs—various kinds of pierogi, stuffed cabbage, blintzes, sauerkraut, and then maybe you want some dessert? There are cakes, cookies, ice cream, the works. My wife was braver than me when it came to the lard—whipped and white with dark specks of meat, set in a bowl. Customers at two other tables had to explain what it was and how to eat it: spread on bread like butter. "It tastes like Crisco with bacon bits," she said. —Jeffrey Felshman

Kasia's Deli

2101 W. Chicago | 773-486-7500

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Don't be daunted by a deli counter manned by unsmiling Eastern bloc women ladling galompki (cabbage rolls) with grim efficiency; Kasia's Deli has been a Ukie Village landmark for 27 years, and owner Kazimiera Bober has proudly served her pierogi to presidents (Clinton), mayors (Daley) and domestic divas (Martha Stewart). In addition to the Polish dumplings, there's a fine selection of mildly spiced, mostly meat-based dishes that'll easily fill two hungry guys for under $20. In fact, if you spend much more than that, you'll probably need a two-wheeler to cart home your doggie bag. Veal meatballs, flecked with dill, are subtle, and like many of the dishes here, satisfying though not aggressively flavored. The galompki, in fact, were so laid-back that they lulled my taste buds to sleep. If salad appeals, the pureed beet has a soft whisper of horseradish, and there are several types of slaw, as well an oxymoronically lightweight potato salad with carrots and peas. The best ordering strategy is to buy a quarter-pound of six or seven selections and then nosh at one of two small cafe tables at the front—the icy staff will warm everything for you. —David Hammond

Lutnia

5532 W. Belmont | 773-282-5335

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SUNday, TUESday-SATurday | Closed monday | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 11

If you thought there was no such thing as Polish fine dining, then you haven't been to Lutnia. They serve many upscale non-Polish dishes (their Caesar salad and duck flambe with orange sauce get raves), but traditional dishes also have an elegant flair. The soups are rich—like the hot-and-sweet beet soup with sauerkraut dumplings or the hunter's stew, a concoction of cabbage, beef, veal, sausage, mushrooms, and wine—and the potato dumplings are full of delicious homemade lumps. Although you might be tempted to clean your plate, try to save room for the luscious desserts on the cart. And treat yourself to the Polish coffee, prepared tableside with honey liqueur. —Ben Dooley

Mabenka

7844 S. Cicero, Burbank | 708-423-7679

$

BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Parking can be a challenge at this southwest-suburban restaurant, but the massive menu offers plenty of standard entrees (chicken, fish, pasta, salads) as well as an extensive array of Polish and Lithuanian dishes. Stuffed cabbage, kugelis, dumplings, and cepelinai (a large potato dumpling stuffed with ground meat and topped with bacon and sour cream) are just a portion of what's available. There are also Polish and Lithuanian combo plates. —Ben Dooley

Players Club

2500 N. Ashland | 773-477-7769

$$

DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & Sunday brunch | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, MONDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2, SUNDAY TILL MIDNIGHT

At this race-car-themed bar and restaurant chef-owner Mary Jurczyk creates healthful twists on her Polish grandmother's recipes, using free-range chicken and sprouted bread and substituting whole-grain spelt flour for white flour, sea salt for rock salt, and honey and fruit juices for refined white sugar. But the meals aren't light—the eight-page menu is full of pierogi and goulash, plus non-Polish dishes like grilled tuna steak, pastas, steak Diane, and rack of lamb. Brunch is especially decadent: besides a complete egg menu that includes filet mignon Benedict, there are strawberry and apple crepes as big as king-size burritos, stuffed with fresh fruit and sour cream, sprinkled with triple sec and amaretto, and garnished with pecans and ribbons of whipped cream. The kitchen stays open till midnight every night except Monday, when it's open till 10 PM. —A. LaBan

Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja

1549 W. Division | 773-486-6655

$$

BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

It isn't just the knickknacks and portraits of the pope in this former tavern, a remnant of Division Street's days as the great "Polish Broadway," that remind me of my grandmother; I'll be damned if I don't sense her presence in the pungent whiff of cabbage that floats from the kitchen or the gentle tang of fermented rye flour in the zurek. That's white borscht, a smooth, creamy dill-specked soup with chunks of garlic and slices of kielbasa that has been fortifying Hunky peasants and steelworkers for generations. At Podhalanka you'll still see old-timers at the bar, warming their bones with cabbage or barley soup or fat pierogi stuffed with piquant ground pork, cabbage, or potato and cheese, but also younger folks who may or may not speak Polish working down bowls of caraway-flecked sauerkraut and heaps of smashed potatoes in gravy, accompanied by something big and meaty: a pork roll, perhaps, stuffed with mushrooms, green peppers, onions, bacon, paprika, and a few allspice berries, or uncured spareribs cooked in sauerkraut until tender. These meals are almost entirely drained of color, but they're big, inexpensive, and preceded by baskets of fresh bread and butter. —Mike Sula

Przybylo's White Eagle

6839 N. Milwaukee, Niles | 847-647-0660

$$

POLISH/RUSSIAN/EASTERN EUROPEAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-SATURDAY | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

It's a banquet hall without any atmosphere, but if you're seeking a traditional home-style Polish dinner you'll find it here. Large bowls are served family style, with six different types of pierogi among the options. Meat selections range from Polish sausage with sauerkraut to golabki (hearty stuffed cabbage rolls) to a flavorful goulash that would make a Polish grandmother swell with pride. Perfect for groups, the White Eagle doesn't refill bowls once they're empty, but that's hardly necessary; more likely you'll be taking home leftovers. —Ben Dooley

Red Apple

3121 N. Milwaukee | 773-588-5781

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

For Polish home cooking, the Red Apple—or Czerwone Jabluszko—is a real find. The impressive spread includes homemade kielbasa, pierogi, golabki (stuffed cabbage), blintzes and apple pancakes, roast chicken and duck, pork with plum filling, turkey legs, carve-it-yourself roast beef and ham, and in case that's not enough for you, soup, salad, and dessert are included. There's a second location at 6474 N. Milwaukee (773-763-3407). —Laura Levy Shatkin

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