The Polish Al Pastor and Other Slavic Fast Food Finds

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pork kebab,middle eastern style
  • pork kebab,"middle eastern style"

"The spices come from Poland," said the woman at the counter. "Why? Was it too much?"

I'm genetically predisposed to love the heavy, starchy, porky peasant food of eastern Europe, but let's face it, Polish food isn't exactly known for its doors-of-perception-blowing spice levels. No, I assured her the "European kebab" I lunched on last week, wasn't too spicy, but it wasn't exactly Polish either. The pork, shaved off the rotating spit onto a thick, toasty pita and topped with an abundance of crunchy vegetables, then drizzled with a garlicky mayo-yogurt sauce, was mighty tasty though, and awfully familiar. In the photo it's obscured by the verdure, but it had the elusive juicy-tender and crispy-caramelized duality of a perfectly shaved shawerma, or doner kebab.

Meat-on-a spit doner joints run by Turkish immigrants are found all over central and eastern Europe—particularly in the big cities. Doner—or more appropriately its Arabic variant shawerma—isn't rare here, either. But what you don't often see in Chicago—or at all, actually—are Polish-owned and -operated doner kebab restaurants, serving pork at that.

Warsaw native Greg Kierzkowski, who makes frequent visits back home, says about five or six years ago he noticed an explosion of kebab joints there. "People are crazy about kebabs," he says. Eventually native Poles began getting into the act, adding their own particular, ahem, spin—namely pork, dressed with an abundance of vegetables such as cabbage, corn, and cucumbers.

The leap to pork isn't unprecedented in doner's relentless global conquest—Mexicans adopted shawerma from Lebanese immigrants who arrived in the 30s, layering marinated pork on the trompo, resulting in tacos arabes, and their more popular cousin, tacos al pastor, which has recently been discovered by the seething immigrant hordes of Wicker Park.

the trompo
  • the trompo

Kierzkowski is cagey about those seasonings he's importing from Poland—the ham and pork butt meat is tenderized in vinegar and seasoned with a red-pepper-based mix. He also offers cinnamon-seasoned chicken or turkey kebabs. Those are available on pita or tortillas or as entrees with fries, and they all come with a choice of four house-made sauces.

ready for Gwiazdka
  • ready for Gwiazdka

Royal Kebab (3051 N. Central, 773-930-3390) opened its doors about a month and a half ago in a strip mall just south of the heart of Chicago's heavily Polish Belmont-Cragin neighborhood. Kierzkowski says the high volume of recent, and young Polish immigrants convinced him he could make a go of it. Turns out that little stretch of Central is home to another source of distinctly Polish street food. Right across the street the tiny storefront prosaically named "Polish Food" offers an interesting selection including this monstrosity:

pig in a blanket
  • pig in a blanket

That oversized pig in a blanket is known as a hot dog z pieczarkami, in this case a mushy skinless wiener stuffed in a hollowed-out roll, surrounded by a protective layer of minced sauteed mushrooms. The high-quality bakery roll was toasted, and under more rarefied circumstances the mushroom matrix could be called duxelles, but the sausage needs much more tensile strength to carry this off, and the whole affair was doused in ketchup and mayo-mustard sauce.

Polish Food also offers a burger, a fruit-dressed waffle, and a kielbasa sandwich that looked mighty impressive. A much more iconic Polish street food on the menu, known as zapiekanka, had Food Chain eastern European adviser Patryk Piwinski OMG-ing in polsku when he heard about it. That's a sliced baguette layered with mushrooms and cheese or cheese and vegetables and yes, more mayo, ketchup, and corn. "Polish people like their corn," Piwinksi acknowledged.

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