Chicago's Top 5 Eastern European eats

January 6, 2011

cabbage stuffed with beef, pork and rice, topped with tomato sauce, surrounding
a mound of mamaliga (polenta) from Little Bucharest (photo: Joseph Storch) 

We could all use a little bit of warmth this time of year.  God knows I'm afraid to see my People's Energy bill this month, since I've been cranking the thermostat.  Thank goodness our city is loaded with all kinds of Eastern European gems, where they worship borscht as much as they do burek.  The gut-filling foods from Hungary, Poland and Bosnia (not to mention the former Soviet Union) are the original cold weather culinary remedies.

1. Szalas (5214 S. Archer Ave., 773-582-0300)
This Polish restaurant on the Southwest Side features "Highlander" cuisine (read: mountain people) so there's enough game and pork to keep you full all winter.  I love the decor here - the Von Trapps meet Grizzly Adams - complete with stuffed animals and a massive waterfall.  Be sure to try the bigos (hunter's stew).

2. Little Bucharest (3661 N. Elston Ave., 773-604-8500)
It's a taste of Romania, but over the past year, they've been gussying up the food a bit.  I love the goulash with hearty potato gnocchi, but the stuffed cabbage with the homemade mamaliga (polenta) is worth the trip alone.

3. Beograd Cafe & Market (2933 W. Irving Pk. Rd., 773-478-7575)
It's all about the burek here - a dense, flaky, savory pie the size of a frisbee, stuffed with either ground beef or farmer's cheese.  You can try to look like a Bosnian ex-pat and order it with a glass of thick yogurt, but I would advise against that.  Try some bracing coffee instead.  The regulars chug it like a Wrigleyville college grad drinks Coors Light.

4. Russian Tea Time (77 E. Adams St., 312-360-0000)
A respite of tranquil, Old World elegance amid a sea of tourists clamoring for tickets to the Art Institute.  This well-worn Loop restaurant still offers wonderful, homemade tashkent salads, Ukrainian borscht and blinchiki (crepes stuffed with beef and caramelized onions).  They'll happily coach you on how to shoot vodka.

5. Smak-Tak (5961 N. Elston Ave., 773-763-1123)
Three words: Hungarian-style pancake.  What do you get when you stuff an enormous potato pancake with beef goulash, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes?  Full.

Honorable mentions: Nelly's Saloon (3256 N. Elston, 773-588-4494), Staropolska (5249 W. Belmont, 773-736-5230); Ferajna (6714 W. Belmont, 773-427-0727), Julius Meinl (3601 N. Southport, 773-868-1857; 4363 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-868-1876)