My family and I have had something few others have – or at least, we could, since we’ve got the recipe for it: honey-braised bear paws. It’s on page 653 of “Polish Heritage Cookery,” which we haul out every Christmas and Easter at my parents’ house when we cook and bake up a Polish storm.
And by haul out, I mean that the cookbook, according to my less-than-scientific bathroom scale, weighs in around five pounds. More than 800 pages of recipes are organized into chapters you’d expect in ethnic cookbooks: “Soups – Hot & Cold, Savory & Sweet” and “Meat & Vegetable and Vegetable Dishes” – and some you wouldn’t: “Sausage-making, Meat-curing & Smoking,” “Wildfowl & Game,” and “Fish Dinner Salads.”
Bear paws and fish salads aside, Poles love food. This monumental cookbook is but one testament to that love. But we don’t always have time to make gołąbki (stuffed cabbage rolls, page 354) from scratch. So when we need a great Polish food fix, we head to one of these places.
Andrzej Grill & Restaurant
1022 N. Western Ave.; Chicago
Best pierogi in town: light, thin dough stuffed with either savory (cabbage, mushroom, meat) or sweet (blueberry, sweet cheese) fillings. We order the blueberry ones for dessert; but, be careful when you cut into them because they’re stuffed so full that blueberries will come tumbling out of their doughy confines the second you put a knife near them.
In the summertime, get the chłodnik: a cold beet soup with all sorts of veggies, served with a heaping plate of sautéed potatoes with onions.
Bring along some Zywiec, Okocim, Tyskie or another Polish beer – since Andrzej’s is BYOB – and if you’re really looking to be Polish for an afternoon, raspberry syrup, which Poles pour into their beer for a light summery concoction.
1549 W. Division St.; Chicago
Red vinyl-covered bar stools; plastic-covered tablecloths; pictures of the Pope (for us, there’s just the one) – and hearty, homemade Polish food.
Start with tripe soup if you’re adventurous: They boil the hell out of the tripe so it’s as soft as noodles, and served in a thick, peppery broth. The chicken, tomato and cabbage soups – are also excellent, especially with the complimentary rye bread and butter.
Meat-wise, go with the breaded pork cutlet. It’s fried for a crispy outside and tender inside.
Skip the pierogi for naleśniki (blintzes): Stuffed with thick, sweet farmer’s cheese, they’re folded in four, fried, then dusted with powdered sugar.
5752 W. Belmont Ave.; Chicago
The stark interior is reminiscent of Communist-era cafeteria, but the food here is plentiful and colorful. Tastiest is the placek po węgiersku, a potato pancake with goulash, especially with a glass of chilled kompot – juice made from stewed fruit.
Oak Mill Bakery
2204 W. North Ave., Chicago
When this bakery announced it was opening a new Wicker Park location, I received strings of emails from excited fans. Oak Mill carries traditional Polish pastries such as pączki (the cookbook describes them as “luscious doughnuts”) and szarlotki (an open-faced apple pie) and its own unique brand of European-style pastries and cakes.
And oh, those cakes… My favorite is their signature, the pear charlotte: pear mousse and chocolate cake surrounded by lady-fingers, topped with sliced pears and chocolate drizzle.
4750 N. Harlem Ave.; Harwood Heights
Absolute pączki perfection: light, fluffy, deliciously chewy. For birthdays, we sometimes forgo cakes, buy a few boxes of these, and arrange them in a circle with candles: they’re that amazing.
5927 W. Lawrence Ave.; 1710 N. Wells St.; 131 N. Clinton St.; Chicago
Makowiec (poppyseed cake) is the word here, as are chruściki (angel wings – delicate dough dusted with powdered sugar), kołaczki (sugar cookies with fruit filling), and cheesecakes (European raisin, yum!).
Polish delis abound throughout Chicago and its suburbs. They’re great for lunch supplies, as their breads, cold cuts and cheese are much cheaper – as well as fresher and tastier – than what you find in grocery stores.
Stock up on Polish jams as well – they’re made without preservatives and aren’t too sweet.
Here’s just two of my favorite delis.
2101 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago
Kasia of Kasia’s Pierogi fame sells not just pierogi but homemade meals-to-go and salads in her Ukranian Village deli. For traveling and shipping, they’ll vacuum-seal their kiełbasy (sausages) and kabanosy (a thin, dried pepperoni-type sausage).
2158 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago
After Kasia’s Deli, head a block westward to Ann’s Bakery, which is not Polish but Ukrainian. It has THE best rye bread, which according to the author of “Polish Heritage Cookery” should have “shiny crackly crust, a springy body and good flavor with discernible rye undertones.” It does, so buy a few extra loaves and freeze the ones you don’t devour immediately.
All vetted by Polish foodies; all in Chicago unless otherwise noted.
Restaurants – Sami Swoi; Ferajna
Delis – Andy’s, Kordian’s Market, Montrose Deli, Kurowski’s Sausage Shop