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The oxymoronic phrase "best buffet" has been on the questioning minds of some Friends of the Food Chain over the past few weeks. Most have been hard-pressed to name a single one that is consistently good at a good value. But based on the ever present stockpile of pierogi and golumpki that once filled my mom's freezer, I was under the delusion that Polish food had a long shelf life, and that your standard Polish buffet was an exception to the commonsense maxim to stay away from a smorgasbord that has no line in front of it. I was a fan of the always bustling but now decommissioned Bobak's, but the Food Chain's Polish informant said there was really no such thing as a really good Polish stóÅ szwedzki. That said, he does take his mom to Old Warsaw in Harwood Heights more than anywhere else. So we went to investigate.
The etched glass likeness of Syrenka, the sword-wielding mermaid protectress of the Polish capital is the first thing you see on the front doors before they swing open to reveal a gaudy Lynchian film set of dangling paper decorations, chandeliers and disco ball, red banquettes, red neon, plastic-covered tablecloths with pink placemats, and a blinking fluorescent light over the dessert spread. You expect to see a dancing dwarf come lurching out of the bar to the tune of Who Stole the Kishka? I really wanted it to be the one.
It was a rainy Tuesday night, and the joint was mostly empty, prime conditions to test the theory, but the wrinkly red peppers garnishing the salad bar bode ill. The first bite of a sweet, light blintz gave some early hope, and the simplest things turned out to be the most palatable--a nice rustic paté, a juicy section of kielbasa, a heaping spoonful of nutty kasha--and the variety of house-made pastries was really pretty overwhelming. But hope was quickly dashed by some key items that should have been a lot better--structurally inferior meat pierogi (no potato? no kraut?), once-crisp potato pancakes dead by heat lamp, mushy sauerkraut. There were a few items like the dessicated carved ham and roast beef that were painful to even look at.
All that said, the Polish informant says places like Old Warsaw are paradise for older Polish folks, who likely grew up in the old country eating nothing but potatoes and buttermilk, and maybe a scrap of meat on Easter. Perhaps consequently, Old Warsaw doesn't keep late hours. But who knows what kind of shenanigans go down in the farthest corners of the Copernicus Room on a Friday night when the clock strikes nine? Reservations are required on Sundays, holidays, and Saturdays after seven, so those just might be the times to go.
Old Warsaw Buffet, 4750 N. Harlem Ave., Harwood Heights, 708-867-4500