Take a subtle hint from the Polish Museum of America, the Taste of Polonia Festival during Labor Day weekend, or the Polish Constitution Day Parade on May 3: Chicago knows a thing or two when it comes to culture beyond the Maxwell Street sausage. Given that our fair city houses the largest population of Poles outside of Poland, Podhalanka’s existence isn’t surprising—but it certainly is satisfying.
Billed as one of Chicago’s “great neighborhood restaurants,” Podhalanka is like the home of your quirky, genuinely Polish, next-door grandmother: knickknacks crammed on the soda-stacked bar, a collection of Polish greeting cards in a corner, a picture of the late Pope John Paul II on the otherwise plain walls. Piles of newspapers collect higgledy-piggledy near the door for reading material, and friends often pop in to visit the soft-spoken, green-smocked woman who owns and manages the restaurant. The tables are set only with rustic tablecloths, flower-covered vinyl placemats, and utensils; anything fancier would be as out of place as the 60-degree weather last week.
Podhalanka’s style is entirely in keeping with the home-cooked offerings of its menu. Everything that warms your inner Eastern European during Christkindlmarket—blintzes, sauerkraut, potato pancakes—has a steady presence here, but shares the company of more nationally unique dishes such as white borscht or beans Breton-style. Every meal is accompanied by slices of Polish rye to boot. Although Podhalanka’s version of breakfast comprises fried eggs and fried sausage, we suggest coming for lunch or dinner to sample one of the 10 types of soup and partake in more intriguing permutations of Polish fare.
Our meal began with kompot, a traditional drink made from dried fruit boiled in sugar water, which in Poland is served more often at home than in restaurants with bucolic Polish accoutrements hanging on the wall. The kompot had a sweet, refreshing cranberry taste that lacked the overly saccharine, tooth-burning flavor of typical American sodas.
Of the three types of pierogi, or boiled dumplings, we passed on the cabbage-filled ones in favor of the potato with cheese and the meat. The pierogis were wrinkled, pinched half-moons, drizzled in rich sauerkraut and accompanied by a deliciously fattening dollop of sour cream. The outer shells, much like Mike Gravel’s rap video, were decent, but did no justice to the contents therein, at least for the potato-and-cheese pierogis. The not-exactly-identifiable meat in the others, though, was drier and not nearly as flavorful.
The gold standard of Podhalanka, though, lies in its placki ziemniaczane—the potato pancake. Giving any homemade latke a run for its gelt, the pancakes have a fantastic dark-gold color and crisp texture. Served with more sour cream and a lightly tangy applesauce, the fried, starchy pancakes have the perfect consistency and carry the day better than Casimir Pulaski.
With the reinvention of Mexican and the rise of molecular gastronomy of late, older favorites—especially those as old as Polish tradition in Chicago—can often suffocate under the glamour of newer cuisine. Podhalanka, in its unassuming way, could easily be lost in the darkness of Division Street forever, but it has no right to be. Not with its reminder of true home cooking. Not with its testimony to Chicago’s Polish past. Not with its greeting cards. And definitely not with its potato pancakes, the best you’ll find outside of Warsaw.