At Berwyn’s Czech Plaza, when someone orders dumplings with the breaded pork tenderloin, the waitresses don’t bat an eye. “We’re like, ‘Sure, of course!'” says Zdenka Manetti. “But that is absolutely not the way you eat it.”
Mashed or boiled potatoes are the way to go, says Manetti, daughter of owners Jerry and Ladislava Drozda. Manetti greets customers, rings up checks, and handles complaints most Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at the 48-year-old restaurant. Her sister-in-law takes over the rest of the week, and her brother helps out on weekends, but it’s her mother who shows up at seven every morning to bake fresh rye bread, boil the spongy bread dumplings called houskove knedliky, and prepare about two dozen different specials. That’s on top of the regular menu, which with one curious exception is straightforwardly eastern European, featuring a lot of the roasted meats in sweet gravies, heavy starchy dumplings and potatoes, and thick, creamy goulashes you’d find pretty much anywhere in Bohemia.
Zdenka was four years old when the family fled Czechoslovakia, seven months after the Soviets tanks rolled over it in 1968. After another half a year in an Austrian refugee camp, they joined a distant great-aunt they’d never met before, who sponsored their immigration here. Zdenka grew up among the Mexican kids whose parents were beginning to settle in Berwyn in greater numbers, and who taught her Spanish words before she’d even picked up Czech.
But even then, there were still Czech butchers and bakeries in force along Cermak, and at least a dozen restaurants where you could order a heaping, steaming plate of svickova, pickled beef drenched in steamy sweet gravy; or fat blueberry, peach, or plum dumplings drizzled with melted butter and sprinkled with brown sugar; or even the dish Zdenka refers to as “Bohemian chop suey.”
She says the restaurant was serving this peculiar Czech-Ameri-Chinese mutation long before her parents bought it in 1989, and prior to that her Aunt Dorothy was cooking up the mix of pork, mushrooms, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, red peppers, and other vegetables in a thick brown goulashlike gravy at home.
While Jerry got his start in the U.S. as a truck driver, Ladislava began accumulating restaurant experience, waitressing at a number of Czech spots. And for a while the couple ran their own tavern, Lotties’s Place, at 27th and Kostner. When they made an offer on the Plaza, as it was then called, former owner Zdenek Kresl taught Jerry how to butcher the ribs from a pork loin (which he still does every day) and Ladislava how to make the chop suey. But she could already cook almost everything else on the menu, which hasn’t changed much since.
The breaded pork tenderloin is her biggest seller, but the roasted duck—which it’s perfectly acceptable to order with dumplings and sauerkraut—is popular too, as are the breaded ground-veal Prague cutlet and the potato dumplings stuffed with ham and covered in bacon and onions. Everything comes with a choice of tomato juice or soup (perhaps liver dumpling, pea, or goulash) and sides, which besides dumplings and sweet sauerkraut include pickled beets, spaetzle, applesauce, and potato or cucumber salad.
Zdenka doesn’t know why many of the restaurant’s second- and third-generation Czech customers like to order dumplings with their breaded pork tenderloin, or potato salad with stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce, or other combinations that would never go over in the motherland. Some have been known to order the sweet fruit dumplings with a side of rich, savory brown gravy. It’s the way they grew up eating them here.
The waitresses, all relatively recent Czech immigrants, usually need some time to get used to it. Paula Pierce, who came here from Prague and has worked in the restaurant for 14 years, remembers a new waitress whose brain nearly melted when a table ordered stuffed potato dumplings with a side of beets. “She tried to tell them that that they could not eat it with beets because it only goes with sauerkraut and cabbage,” she says. “I told her the people don’t know how to eat it.”
A good number of Czech Plaza’s oldest, most loyal, and regular customers have passed away in the 21 years the Drozdas have owned the place. “A lot of our customers are seniors,” says Zdenka. “But not as much now as it used to be.” Their children who’ve left Berwyn might come in for lunch if they’re back in the neighborhood for a doctor’s appointment or a funeral party like the one that took up a 12-top in the second dining room on a recent Monday afternoon. But the previous Saturday night there was a lively crowd lingering over plentiful dumplings and plates like veal heart or rabbit in sour cream gravy. At around 7:30, a half hour before closing, an older gent finished his roasted lamb shank with barley dressing, picked up his cane, and passed out dollar bills to a few children on his way out the door, heralding a gradual exodus as the remaining adults took their last swigs of Pilsner Urquel.
Apart from the storied and baroque palace Klas farther
west east in Cicero, Czech Plaza is all that remains of Cermak’s Czech restaurant row, and it may survive by the power of its Berwyn monopoly. “They’re not the two-three-times-a week people,” says Manetti of her customers. But “we’re the only one around here. There’re still the people that work here and live here and want their Czech fix once a week or once every other week.”