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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Smak-Tak

5961 N. Elston | 773-631-6171

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

This tiny, tidy Polish chalet on Elston is much beloved for its deep bowls of hearty soups (clear amber-colored chicken noodle, creamy mushroom, thick barley), its plump, butter-drenched pierogi (tangy cheese and potato, finely ground meat, assorted fruit flavors, incredible mushroom and sauerkraut), and ample, thoughtfully accented dinners such as hunter's stew, stuffed cabbage, and breaded cutlets, each served with sides of pickled vegetable salads or potatoes and topped with generous dollops of pure white sour cream. But there's one plate in particular among that assortment that is a destroyer, an absolutely delicious but insurmountable plate. To order and finish it is essentially to commit yourself to an extended period of slack-jawed catalepsy, preferably in a reclined position, attended by concerned loved ones. The Hungarian-style pancake is formed by one of Smak Tak's enlarged but delicately crispy potato pancakes folded over a massive portion of mushroomy, peppery beef goulash, topped by a length of coiled sour cream and a mocking sprinkle of chopped parsley. It took me two days to finish it off—and I had help. —Mike Sula

Stanley's Tavern

4258 S. Ashland | 773-927-0033

$

LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-FRIDAY | CLOSED Saturday-sUNDAY

There's no sign outside indicating that this remnant of Whiskey Row is a place where you can get a cheap draft and a hot, hearty lunch. But every workday you can find truck drivers, managers from Tyson or Edsal Manufacturing, or guys from the bricklayers union bellied up to the bar or squeezed behind tables, powering down Wanda Kurek's daily special—and maybe a cold one. Some of them have been coming for decades. Kurek wakes at six each morning and reads her Trib and Sun-Times before she starts the day's cooking, all done on an O'Keefe & Merritt porcelain stove that's almost 60 years old. She might make baked ham with raisin sauce, or roast pork with dumplings, stuffed cabbage and potato salad, or breaded chicken breast on buttered noodles, or Cornish hens. For six bucks you get a heaping plate with a vegetable or two, but on days when Wanda decides to make prime rib she charges seven. Soups—split pea, oxtail with barley, chicken noodle—run about a buck and a half a bowl. There are Vitner's potato chips behind the bar, and if you want a root beer it's Filbert's, bottled right up the street. —Mike Sula

Staropolska Restaurant

5249 W. Belmont | 773-736-5230

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Staropolska's smorgasbord emphasizes Polish favorites such as kielbasa, cabbage rolls, kishka, and pierogi but includes American offerings, such as fried chicken. As with most Polish meals, you won't still be hungry after eating here. At these prices ($7.95 for adults during the week, $9.95 on weekends) don't expect gourmet offerings, but you will get hearty fare. Fresh fruit (kiwi, strawberries, grapes, grapefruit) and delicious layer cakes cut into small pieces cap off the meal. Coffee and soup are extra—$1.65 and $1.50 respectively—but worth it. —Claire Dolinar

Szalas

5214 S. Archer | 773-582-0300

$$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

The Gorale, a sheepherding people of the Polish highlands, have a substantial community on the south side—which explains the presence of not one but two fantasy European hunting lodges straight out of the Brothers Grimm on an otherwise mundane stretch of Archer Avenue northeast of Midway. (The other is the Polish Highlanders Association.) The wealth of rustic detail at Szalas includes a working waterwheel, stuffed animal heads, and staff in billowy peasant dress—you can even dine in a sleigh if you can fit. The most interesting among the appetizers is moskul, a flatbread that looks like pita but is made of flour, potato, and eggs; it's accompanied by a sheep's cream cheese called bryndza and a schmear made of lard studded with bits of smalec, Polish bacon. The lard is delicious, though non-Gorale may find it hard to eat more than a bite or two without health qualms. Entrees don't do anything to reverse the reputation of Polish food as hearty, though the Highlander's Special—veal goulash inside a large potato pancake and dotted with sheep's sour cream—is almost delicate for its kind. So too with dessert: fluffy orange-scented cheese blintzes that came with loads of fruit and vanilla ice cream. Service was a bit blase at an early seating but weekends, when there's live Gorale music and the bar stays open till 2, are reportedly quite lively. —Michael Gebert

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