photo: courtesy of Szalas
The vibrant first generation of Polish immigrants that defined ethnic Chicago at mid-century has moved to the suburbs, and what were once huge blocks of Polish businesses are now interrupted by new waves of Latino immigrants and their infrastructure.
Even with these changes, there's still a heavy flavor of Poland on Chicago's Northwest Side, and from big buffets to gourmet dishes, we got you covered.
Szalas Restaurant Looking as if a ski chalet dropped from the sky a la Wizard of Oz, Szalas' hunting lodge-style interior houses wagon wheels, wild game heads and a mean commitment to celebrating the traditional Polish Highlander culture from the region of Podhale. Highlanders are a hearty lot, descended from sheepherders, and as a result they require a fare to steel themselves through pounding mountain winters and backbreaking labor. Expect traditional dishes like herring in sour cream, thick potato pancakes slathered with sour cream and chutney, and hunter stew with braised sauerkraut, grilled sausage, bacon and roast pork.
Lutnia Chicago's only fine dining Polish restaurant sports a Liberace vibe, replete with gold and marble trimmings, a white grand piano and copious mirrors. Unlike its counterparts, Lutnia eschews buffet-style grub illuminated by heat lamps and rustic country fare in favor of artful presentations of Polish classics (with the occasional French touch, in the form of frog's legs and escargot). While the offerings have more finesse, they're no less heart attack-inducing. Mushrooms are stuffed with spinach, egg and mozzarella cheese, while chicken liver is fried and tossed with prunes and bacon. Roasted meats like roast duck flambe in a zingy orange sauce or roast boar in an herby juniper perfumed gravy are highlights.
Jolly Inn The interior of this Northwest Side buffet, with its flagstone mural walls, fabric paneled booths and deco mirror arrangements, has a Poland-meets-Brady Bunch feel. A respectable alternative to the much lauded Red Apple, standbys like pierogies, stuffed cabbage, blintzes and pork are excellent. Heartier options like beef stroganoff, meatballs in gravy and breaded pork chops are soul-satisfying options to stave off Chicago's long winter. Bowls of lard studded with dots of meat are placed on each table; only patrons who have recently undergone a rigorous cardiac stress test should attempt to spread it like butter on the accompanying bread.
Podhalanka With its red vinyl stools, scalloped curtains, plastic tablecloths, poster of Pope John Paul, ceramic roosters and assorted bric-a-brac lining the back counter, Podhalanka is what you'd get if a Polish grandmother opened a restaurant speakeasy in her basement. The ubiquitous potato pancake is to Polish restaurants what French fries are to McDonald’s, but the version served here, a crispy thick disk with a smidge of onion slathered with tangy sour cream and sweet apple sauce, is a starchy star. White borscht with sausage chunks and a dusting of dill, and braised spareribs nestled in mashed potatoes and covered in sauerkraut and gravy stand out. Don’t forget to ask for a glass of the house kompot, a fruity punch made from fresh seasonal fruits like plums, apples or dried berries.