After six years of serious eating and four of serious blogging, I’ve been thoroughly convinced that dining chic will never be relevant to my life. One week of eating in Chicago banged a few more nails in that coffin (a relatively easy affair when the hammer is made of pork bones), but perhaps no place sharpened the point more than Podhalanka.
A Polish restaurant-cum-diner in Chicago’s Noble Square, Podhalanka (rough translation: “girl from Podhale“) resembles a fraternal lodge. The large hall of a dining room, framed in dark brown wood and the dim glow of poor natural lighting, is an unwitting mausoleum of vintage lampshades hung over awkwardly located incandescent bulbs. In a few corners the ceilings are scantily clad with Christmas lights, fitting company to the overstuffed and international holiday card tree perched at the end of our table. It’s the last day of July.
The three of us, still recovering from a night of hard dancing at the Windy City Soul Club, stumble into Podhalanka on the pretense of a Polish-American breakfast, thoughts of New York’s Stage Restaurant on my mind.
We’re greeted by a middle-aged Polish man, who promptly informs us that breakfast is not served on Sundays. Sunday is a day for Polish home cooking, and for 28 years, Podhalanka has been serving Polish home cooking for the after-church crowd (count at this moment: five, elderly and well dressed). Shutting the menu and asking if it’s our first time eating here, he recommends that we order three soups, pierogi, golabki, potato pancakes, kielbasea, blintzes and homemade juice. Then he recommends that we double the order – assuming, of course, that we’re actually hungry.
After declining the absurd notion of eating 3 bowls of soup and 10 family-style plates of Polish food, we’re suckered into ordering 3 bowls of soup and 5 family-style plates of polish food, plus three diner coffees and a pitcher of juice ($73 after tip, for more than double the amount of food we’re capable of eating). All things considered, there are much worse places to be a sucker, and while some of them have waiters this sheisty, few of them have cooks this good.
The soups of the day are meals in and of themselves. The house borsch, halfway between a spiced Polish beet broth and vegetable-heavy Ukranian beet soup, arrives with a dollop of sour cream already mixed in and a few soft chunks of diced beet at the bottom of the bowl, presenting one of the more comforting (and filling) bowls of borsch I’ve tasted. One step up the ladder of flavor, the zupa ogorkowa a slightly thicker soup centered on pickles and potatoes, is filled out with rice and flashes of fresh dill. The strongest and heartiest of the three is Podhalanka’s kapustniak (cabbage soup), sporting a vibrant tartness, chunks of chicken, and a bit of grease.
I’m used to ordering my pierogi fried, but Podhalanka’s pierogi are boiled by default, and for good reason. Their skin is thick, sturdy and chewy, nicely accompanied by caramelized onion and sour cream and almost overstuffed with simply seasoned mixtures of cabbage, mushroom, potato, cheese, and ground mixed meats. If I were less cavalier about stomach space, this is the one dish I would refrain from ordering; however, pierogi make great late night snacks, so any money lost easily becomes leftovers gained.
The same goes for these kielbasa, generously sized links in a snappy casing. Their innards are slightly creamy and freckled with black pepper, their edges crisped on the griddle to a deep sepia. One of these links would be plenty for all three of us. Three of them on one plate cost $4.75.
Golabki (stuffed cabbage) here are better than any I’ve had. While fairly hefty, the meat-and-potato filling wrapped up in cabbage and braised in stock is soft to the point of being fluffy. It’s also very flavorful, the ground meat either seasoned as liberally as the restaurant’s kielbasa or taken directly from the casing.
Nothing that we’ve tried, however, is as impressive as Podhalanka’s potato pancakes. The weakness of the latke tends to be the weakness of most pancakes: a bland redundancy and gummy texture that aren’t worth more than one bite.
Thankfully, these pancakes are exemplary. Their edges, fried from golden to coffee in one go, have a hearty, audible crunch. Their ratio to the innards is two-to-one. The innards, just dense enough for a light chew, are discernibly their own perfect form of potato. And the taste, marked by more than spud-colored grease, boasts strong hints of onion and a judicious amount of salt.
The most gratuitous addition to the spread, Podhalanka’s sweet cheese blintzes are still worth it. But at this point, even their crisp, layered edges can’t convince me to clean my plate. We polish off whatever seems like it won’t keep, then pack the rest into boxes and stagger into Chicago daylight, one type of hangover following the other.
North of here, the New American crowd is enjoying picture-perfect brunch at M. Henry. South of here, sustainable seafood specialties are being plated at the Publican. I couldn’t be more oblivious. On the corner of Division and Ashland, I’m learning just how sweet it is to be fed cabbage soup by an old girl from Chicago.
1549 W. Division St.
Chicago, IL 60622