Since I'm in London today, covering the "50 Best Restaurants in the World" tonight, I'm having my intern, Kate Bernot, continue her occasional series on eating with a college student budget in mind.
My last post for this series led me to Devon Avenue for some super-cheap and delicious South Asian cuisine, but this week, I was craving some food that would remind me a bit more of home. I have never seen my grandfather cook, or even so much as boil an egg; there were a few times, however, when I remember Pop-Pop standing at the kitchen counter for hours making homemade pierogi. As a kid, I could sit at my grandparent's kitchen table and eat a whole plate of these potato and onion-filled dough pockets, smothered in sauteed onions and sour cream. Feeling a bit nostalgic, I sought out an authentic and inexpensive Polish restaurant. Podhalanka in Noble Square fit the bill perfectly.
This unassuming storefront with a solid wooden door is barely identifiable as a restaurant, but as soon as I stepped inside, warm and homey cooking smells wafted my way. Luckily, I brought my appetite (and three always-hungry fraternity boys). We sat at one of the few large wooden tables that line one wall of the restaurant and surveyed the kitschy decor. Polish flags, a poster of Pope John Paul II, china knick-knacks and ancient postcards line the wood-paneled walls, giving us the impression that we had stepped into someone's basement circa 1975. After ten minutes, an older woman came over and handed us our menus, along with complimentary glasses of homemade grape juice and half a loaf of sliced bread.
Pierogies and potato pancakes from Podhalanka
Because April in Chicago is still chilly enough for soup, we all ordered both the cabbage soup and mushroom soup ($3.20). Cabbage soup doesn't sound especially appetizing, but Podhalanka's version was hearty and well-spiced. The mushroom soup had elbow macaroni in it, which seemed a bit bizarre at first, but again, we shouldn't have doubted it. The soup was creamy, earthy and very comforting. After devouring the large bowls, I realized why we needed the entire half loaf of bread-- we all soaked up every drop of the soup.
Ready for more, we eagerly anticipated the pierogi, potato pancakes (placki kartoflane) and beef stew we had ordered. We had to wait a while for the main courses to come out, but this just reinforced the feeling that there was real home-cooking going on in the kitchen. There was only the one older woman waiting on tables, who would occasionally yell orders in Polish into the kitchen. I only saw one‚ woman in the kitchen, which would explain the slow pace. The generous helpings of boiled pierogi ($7.50) were total comfort food: doughy, stuffed with fillings (potato/onion, meat or sauerkraut) and buttery without being too greasy. The potato pancakes ($6.75) were the real surprise: perfectly crispy on the outside, piping hot and savory on the inside. The beef stew ($8.75) was like a family Sunday dinner - a huge portion of beef and gravy served with carrots, mashed potatoes and a cucumber salad. The pace of the meal and the generous portions encouraged us to eat family-style, passing around the plates and taking time to talk over a meal, something that we students sadly don't often prioritize. At the end of the meal, our server seemed genuinely pleased and proud when we told her how much we enjoyed it, though I half-expected her to pinch my arm like my aunt and say "You look skinny-- why didn't you finish all of your food?"
Podhalanka satisfies the need for home-cooking in all of us, whether we're college students far from home or just people too busy to cook those big family dinners we remember. If you can load up on starch, carbs and butter without feeling too guilty afterward, this is the Polish gem you've been waiting for.
Podhalanka, 1549 W. Division Street, Open Monday thru Saturday 9:00 am to 8:00 pm, (773) 486-6655.