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Four Eastern European Favorites

Critic's Choice



Podhalanka Polska Restauracja

1549 W. Division


When I was a lad I was repulsed by the big smelly holiday meals served at my Polish grandmother's house, preferring the steak and french fries found at my assimilated Italian grandmother's. I'm still a little grossed out by golabki (stuffed cabbage), but I crave my gram's sour mushroom soup and her buttery pierogi, which, though approximated pretty well by my aunts and mom, are, in their pure form, lost to history. It isn't just the knickknacks and portraits of the pope in this former tavern, a remnant of Division Street's days as the great "Polish Broadway," that remind me of my grandmother; I'll be damned if I don't sense her presence in the pungent scent of cabbage that floats from the kitchen or the gentle tang of fermented rye flour in the zurek. That's white borscht, a smooth, creamy dill-specked soup with chunks of garlic and slices of kielbasa that has been fortifying Hunky peasants and steelworkers for generations. At Podhalanka you'll still see old-timers at the bar, warming their bones with cabbage or barley soup or fat pierogi stuffed with piquant ground pork, cabbage, or potato and cheese, but also younger folks who may or may not speak Polish wolfing down bowls of caraway-flecked sauerkraut and heaps of smashed potatoes in gravy, accompanied by something big and meaty: a pork roll, perhaps, stuffed with mushrooms, green peppers, onions, bacon, paprika, and a few allspice berries, or uncured spareribs cooked in sauerkraut until tender. These meals are almost entirely drained of color, but they're big, inexpensive, and preceded by baskets of fresh bread and butter. --Mike Sula

Halina's Polish Delights Restaurant

5914 W. Lawrence


I love the breaded fried pork and veal cutlets at Halina's. The cutlets, each the size of an elephant ear, include Swedish style (stuffed with mushroom puree), cubao (with white cheese filling), and Wiener schnitzel (the Berghoff's version is no match). They're cooked to order and served hot enough to burn your tongue. Polish standbys like pork shank, stuffed cabbage rolls, and pierogi are good too. The indecisive should consider the Polish Plate, a greatest-hits platter with a breaded pork chop, three pierogi, a stuffed cabbage roll, and Polish sausage on sauerkraut. All dinners (except the pierogi) include buttery mashed potatoes and a trio of cold salads: sauerkraut, coleslaw, and beet. Halina's is BYO; the homemade fruit drink, kompot, pale red sugar water made with the juice from leftover fruit (usually strawberry, watermelon, peach, and cantaloupe), tastes a lot like Kool-Aid. If you're taking a date, be warned: the harsh lighting reflecting off wall-to-wall mirrors reveals every blemish. --Peter Tyksinski

Mario's Cafe

5241 N. Harlem


After an ambitious start in 1995 serving pastry and coffee as the "only Bulgarian cafe in the whole midwest" Mario's has grown into a full-service multistorefront Bulgarian hot spot, with a koi pond at the front door and headliners from the homeland on weekends. That's not to suggest it's a balkanized scene. The staff is friendly and encouraging to outsiders willing to try the food, which is typically eastern European--heavy on the meats and starches--but spiced up. There's schnitzel and shish kebab and a half-inch batter-fried slab of cheese that could be the missing link in the evolution of the grilled cheese sandwich. For breakfast anytime, four basic omelets are tissue paper next to the guvedze, a stoneware bowl filled with layers of scrambled eggs, kashkaval cheese, peppers, onions, feta, and sausage. Most entrees come with potato salad, coleslaw, and bean salad, but if you're feeling particularly understarched order the fleika, a mushroom-gravied pork tenderloin that comes with rice, mashed potatoes, and french fries. Most of these entrees will barely cost you a ten spot, making it easy to invest in one of the 17 Bulgarian wines; salami, pastrami, and cheese appetizers; or any of ten salads, the most powerful which, the cold, garlicky eggplant spread called kyoupolu, could be lunch, spread over the great, fresh white bread. On the weekends things don't start rocking until after 10 PM, but if you eat early you might have a private audience at the accordionist's sound check. --Mike Sula

Players Club

2500 N. Ashland


Chef-owner Mary Jurczyk creates healthful twists on her grandmother's Polish recipes, using free-range chicken and sprouted bread and substituting whole-grain spelt flour for white flour, sea salt for rock salt, and honey and fruit juices for refined white sugar. But the meals aren't light--the eight-page menu is full of pierogi and goulash, plus non-Polish treats like grilled tuna steak, pastas, steak Diane, and rack of lamb. Brunch is especially decadent: besides a complete egg menu that includes filet mignon Benedict, there are strawberry and apple crepes as big as king-size burritos, stuffed with fresh fruit and sour cream, sprinkled with triple sec and amaretto, and garnished with pecans and ribbons of whipped cream. --A. LaBan

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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