Occasionally, I’m asked to recommend a good Polish restaurant in Chicago. Sorry, but I can’t. It’s not that Chicago doesn’t have good Polish restaurants. It does, because people tell me all the time about the succulent kapusta-filled pierogi they had at this place, or the wonderfully spiced kielbasa they devoured at another.
Good for you, I tell them. I’m glad you liked it.
The odds are, however, I wouldn’t have liked it. I have inflexible standards when it comes to Polish food. I compare all food at Polish restaurants with the food I ate at home as a kid, and I can be pretty tough when it comes to judging beef tenderloin with mushroom sauce.
Yet I still eat in Polish restaurants because the craving for borscht and breaded pork cutlets is something that a Polish boy never loses. In only rare cases does the restaurant food reach the quality of the mushroom soup, beet soup, duck-blood soup, stuffed cabbage rolls and pork ribs that my mother made. Never does the food exceed the taste and quality I ate at home.
The high standards I have may be unfair. On the other hand, it could be that every food critic in France compares the pâté in restaurants with the pâté that maman slaved over in her kitchen.
The truth is that in my experience getting a decent Polish meal in Chicago is a hit-and-miss proposition. Of course, I haven’t eaten in every Polish restaurant, but you eat in enough of them and, like a baseball pitcher, you’ll win some and lose some.
Consider the difficulty I’ve had in finding duck-blood soup of the proper thickness, with the right kind of noodles and the appropriate amount of raisins, prunes and shredded duck meat.
It’s nearly impossible. Many restaurants don’t even serve it, and for that they should be ashamed of themselves. Man cannot live on tripe soup alone.
Polish restaurants like to serve meals buffet-style, which tends to make the beef and ham dry from sitting under the heat lamps. It also means you have to get up and go to the buffet line again when you want something more to eat.
I’m lazy. I don’t like to walk around in a restaurant. I just like to sit and eat.
You may be thinking that the ultimate measure of the food in a Polish restaurant would be the flavor of the kielbasa. No. It’s just sausage, and usually smoked. I prefer the fresh variety.
For me the ultimate test is whether the restaurant serves what my family calls “poor man’s pierogi” because it’s pierogi made without a stuffing. You roll pierogi dough into cylinders and cover them with seasoned breadcrumbs, which give the dish a distinct flavor. Without the breadcrumbs it’s nothing more than boiled dough.
I found it at only one restaurant. It was made without breadcrumbs.