Gosia Pieniazek and Gabriel Miranda at Lokal Credit: Eric Futran

In the mid-90s Gosia Pieniazek was waiting tables at Sophie’s Busy Bee, the last Polish restaurant in the immediate orbit of the rapidly gentrifying intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee. A recent immigrant, she’d left northern Poland in 1993, at age 19, which makes her old enough to remember the culinary privation of life behind the Iron Curtain.

“We didn’t have anything, because we had to feed the rest of the Eastern bloc,” she says. “We lived on scraps. There were lines to get sausage. I remember coupons for sugar and chocolate based on your age and based on whether you were female or male. Talking about coffee? What was coffee?”

She also remembers how quickly things changed when the curtain came down. There hadn’t been such a radical change in the way Poles ate since the Italian-born Queen Bona Sforza brought a staff of Italian cooks and gardeners with her to Krakow in the early 16th century. “Suddenly overnight things from the west were pouring into the stores, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and things like that,” Pieniazek says. “Bad or good I don’t know, but it was colorful. We were also able to get tropical veggies and fruits on a bigger scale. A lot of experimenting began with the opening of borders.”

The Busy Bee was long gone by Halloween 2009, when Pieniazek, with husband Art Wnorowski and partner Piotr Hermanowski, opened the slick restaurant and lounge Lokal, just around the corner. She’d argue that the Six Corners still doesn’t have a Polish restaurant—she prefers to think of Lokal’s food as pan-central European, tweaked hard by a global variety of influences. But there’s no question she’s brought Polish food back to the neighborhood—the menu features potato pierogi, golabki, borscht, kielbasa, and a few items you probably wouldn’t recognize if you didn’t grow up with a babcia cooking for you. It just happens to be radically different Polish food from the heavy, homey—but let’s face it, bland—stuff that endeared the Busy Bee to thousands of neighborhood characters over the decades.

Lokal’s pierogi are light and silky and dressed in a creamy bourbon-date sauce that Wnorowski came up with at home while perusing the booze left over from a party. The kielbasa is made from dark-meat chicken and served in a whole-grain-mustard demi-glace with lentils and pancetta. And the golabki? It’s not a stewy cabbage-wrapped lump of amalgamated ground beef and rice but a composed take on maki, with horseradish-flavored sushi rice and braised short rib. All these dishes were developed, like the rest of the menu, in collaboration with Gabriel Miranda, the restaurant’s Chicago-born Mexican-American Japanese-trained chef.

Pieniazek picked up a knack for cooking while traveling in the early 2000s—particularly during a four-month stint in Zambia, where she worked on AIDS awareness for a not-for-profit organization. She was responsible for preparing meals for the community she stayed with, on a limited budget, with staples both familiar and strange. “We cooked a lot of cabbage, chicken, potatoes,” she says. “But I learned how to eat everything from pumpkin leaves to different roots to dishes with mashed peanuts and things I never really experienced. So you can pick up on these familiar things and you add what you learn—like caterpillars with cabbage.”

Still, slinging eggs and pierogi at the Bee and waiting tables in college were the extent Pieniazek’s actual restaurant experience. Before opening Lokal she was a full-time real estate broker and Wnorowksi was a banker (and a musician; he continues to produce music and play keyboards in the hip-hop band Animate Objects). “I think we each had a dream of owning an establishment,” she says. “When we got together, Art having a recording studio in the house and me cooking for all my friends—we always had a full house. And we entertained in various ways. And we wanted to extend that and find a venue where we could do what we do.”

Knowing they’d have to battle the perception that central European food is bland and heavy, they auditioned a series of chefs, giving them a list of Pieniazek’s ideas and ingredients and cutting them loose in the kitchen of the former gallery storefront they found on North Avenue. One of the dishes Miranda came up with won them over right away: his take on a Hungarian palacsinta, typically a gut-busting slab of potato pancake folded over a ladleful of goulash and topped with gobbets of sour cream. Miranda used braised short rib and a coarsely shredded Swedish-style pancake in place of the denser Polish variety and topped it off with demi-glace, goat cheese creme fraiche, and crispy onions. It’s still on the menu.

That was the chef’s first shot at cooking central European food. Before that he’d worked as an ice sculptor and at a series of Japanese restaurants as well as for Philadelphia’s Starr Restaurants group and China Grill, opening restaurants in Mexico City, New York, and Vegas as an executive sous chef. Two years years ago he and his wife opened a coffee shop in Wisconsin. After the economy killed it in August, he returned home to look for work.

None of the corporate chef gigs he came upon offered enough creative control to make them worth the hassle. “I asked myself, ‘Do I want to live a stressful life for a little bit of money or do I just do what I want to do?'” The chance to interpret Pieniazek’s ideas seemed like a good way to stay sane and employed.

Pieniazek and Wnorowski took Miranda around to Polish groceries like Rich’s Delicatessen on Western Avenue and introduced him to a new world—or rather an Old World—of staples. “I’m like, ‘I want this. I want this. What is it? I don’t know. Just bring it and we’ll work with it.'”

He made squid ink spaetzle and poblanos stuffed with Polish sausage. He marinated chicken breasts in Polish Bison Grass Vodka and plated them with red-beet ponzu and cabbage slaw (watch him make it here). He crusted tuna steaks with poppy seeds and dressed them with currants and guajillo chile shavings, and even riffed on Pieniazek’s African experience, deep-frying cabbage cakes and pairing them with a sriracha-togarashi chile dip. When confronted with the fermented rye-flour base used for the sour soup zurek, he incorporated it into an aioli to accompany fried calamari, an idea that in execution is pure genius. These dishes manage to transcend the gimmickry associated with the worst and most unlikely excesses of fusion cuisine and turn out both subtle and delicious.

“Mexican food was given to me,” he says. “It’s in my culture. And I’ve been around Asian food all my life. This pan-European thing is just like a whole new closet of toys opened.”

Pieniazek isn’t sure a European-trained chef could’ve pulled off what Miranda has. “He has a very fresh approach on what European food is and what it used to be,” she says. “Some people might think there are a lot of faux pas because we twist a lot traditional dishes.” But I’m betting Queen Bona would approve.

The Heart of Europe: Fourteen Polish restaurants

Andrzej Grill

1022 N. Western | 773-489-3566

$

LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Serving a dining room about the size of a one-car garage, Andrzej and Anna Burak crank out traditional dishes for a steady stream of Polish folks who know what the food of their homeland should taste like. The list of house-made soups usually includes very good chicken noodle, a tangy sauerkraut and meat, or seasonal “summer soup”: a refreshingly cool pink broth of sour cream, beet, hard-boiled egg, and pickle. Most people fall hard for the stuffed potato pancake enclosing goulash; the most popular item at our table was the platter of peppery meatballs in a creamy mushroom sauce, served—as are many dishes—on boiled potatoes flecked with dill. Uncommon on Chicago menus, the toothsome veal ribs are surprisingly rich; stuffed cabbage, however, is pretty much the expected paper-thin leaves surrounding lots of rice, little meat, and splashed with neutral tomato sauce. There’s also a vegetarian menu section featuring pierogis and salads. Andrzej Grill is BYO; try the European sodas or sample kompot, a Polish fruit water. Most dinners are $8.50; come early—it’s lights-out at 7 PM. —David Hammond

Halina’s Polish Delights Restaurant

5914 W. Lawrence | 773-205-0256

$

LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

I love the breaded fried pork and veal cutlets at Halina’s. The cutlets, each the size of an elephant ear, include Swedish style (stuffed with mushroom puree), cubao (with white cheese filling), and Wiener schnitzel (the Berghoff’s version was no match). They’re cooked to order and served hot enough to burn your tongue. Polish standbys like pork shank, stuffed cabbage rolls, and pierogi are good too. The indecisive should consider the Polish Plate, a greatest-hits platter with a breaded pork chop, three pierogi, a stuffed cabbage roll, and Polish sausage on sauerkraut. All dinners (except the pierogi) include buttery mashed potatoes and a trio of cold salads: sauerkraut, coleslaw, and beet. The homemade fruit drink, kompot, pale red sugar water made with the juice from leftover fruit (usually strawberry, watermelon, peach, and cantaloupe), tastes a lot like Kool-Aid. —Peter Tyksinski

Jolly Inn

6501 W. Irving Park | 773-736-7606

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

This Polish buffet is similar to the Red Apple but homier. For $7.95 ($9.95 on weekends) you get a choice of meats—baked or broasted chicken, roast pork, Polish sausage, meatballs—various kinds of pierogi, stuffed cabbage, blintzes, sauerkraut, and then maybe you want some dessert? There are cakes, cookies, ice cream, the works. My wife was braver than me when it came to the lard—whipped and white with dark specks of meat, set in a bowl. Customers at two other tables had to explain what it was and how to eat it: spread on bread like butter. “It tastes like Crisco with bacon bits,” she said. —Jeffrey Felshman

Kasia’s Deli

2101 W. Chicago | 773-486-7500

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Don’t be daunted by a deli counter manned by unsmiling Eastern bloc women ladling galompki (cabbage rolls) with grim efficiency; Kasia’s Deli has been a Ukie Village landmark for 27 years, and owner Kazimiera Bober has proudly served her pierogi to presidents (Clinton), mayors (Daley) and domestic divas (Martha Stewart). In addition to the Polish dumplings, there’s a fine selection of mildly spiced, mostly meat-based dishes that’ll easily fill two hungry guys for under $20. In fact, if you spend much more than that, you’ll probably need a two-wheeler to cart home your doggie bag. Veal meatballs, flecked with dill, are subtle, and like many of the dishes here, satisfying though not aggressively flavored. The galompki, in fact, were so laid-back that they lulled my taste buds to sleep. If salad appeals, the pureed beet has a soft whisper of horseradish, and there are several types of slaw, as well an oxymoronically lightweight potato salad with carrots and peas. The best ordering strategy is to buy a quarter-pound of six or seven selections and then nosh at one of two small cafe tables at the front—the icy staff will warm everything for you. —David Hammond

Lutnia

5532 W. Belmont | 773-282-5335

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SUNday, TUESday-SATurday | Closed monday | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 11

If you thought there was no such thing as Polish fine dining, then you haven’t been to Lutnia. They serve many upscale non-Polish dishes (their Caesar salad and duck flambe with orange sauce get raves), but traditional dishes also have an elegant flair. The soups are rich—like the hot-and-sweet beet soup with sauerkraut dumplings or the hunter’s stew, a concoction of cabbage, beef, veal, sausage, mushrooms, and wine—and the potato dumplings are full of delicious homemade lumps. Although you might be tempted to clean your plate, try to save room for the luscious desserts on the cart. And treat yourself to the Polish coffee, prepared tableside with honey liqueur. —Ben Dooley

Mabenka

7844 S. Cicero, Burbank | 708-423-7679

$

BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Parking can be a challenge at this southwest-suburban restaurant, but the massive menu offers plenty of standard entrees (chicken, fish, pasta, salads) as well as an extensive array of Polish and Lithuanian dishes. Stuffed cabbage, kugelis, dumplings, and cepelinai (a large potato dumpling stuffed with ground meat and topped with bacon and sour cream) are just a portion of what’s available. There are also Polish and Lithuanian combo plates. —Ben Dooley

Players Club

2500 N. Ashland | 773-477-7769

$$

DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & Sunday brunch | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, MONDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2, SUNDAY TILL MIDNIGHT

At this race-car-themed bar and restaurant chef-owner Mary Jurczyk creates healthful twists on her Polish grandmother’s recipes, using free-range chicken and sprouted bread and substituting whole-grain spelt flour for white flour, sea salt for rock salt, and honey and fruit juices for refined white sugar. But the meals aren’t light—the eight-page menu is full of pierogi and goulash, plus non-Polish dishes like grilled tuna steak, pastas, steak Diane, and rack of lamb. Brunch is especially decadent: besides a complete egg menu that includes filet mignon Benedict, there are strawberry and apple crepes as big as king-size burritos, stuffed with fresh fruit and sour cream, sprinkled with triple sec and amaretto, and garnished with pecans and ribbons of whipped cream. The kitchen stays open till midnight every night except Monday, when it’s open till 10 PM. —A. LaBan

Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja

1549 W. Division | 773-486-6655

$$

BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

It isn’t just the knickknacks and portraits of the pope in this former tavern, a remnant of Division Street’s days as the great “Polish Broadway,” that remind me of my grandmother; I’ll be damned if I don’t sense her presence in the pungent whiff of cabbage that floats from the kitchen or the gentle tang of fermented rye flour in the zurek. That’s white borscht, a smooth, creamy dill-specked soup with chunks of garlic and slices of kielbasa that has been fortifying Hunky peasants and steelworkers for generations. At Podhalanka you’ll still see old-timers at the bar, warming their bones with cabbage or barley soup or fat pierogi stuffed with piquant ground pork, cabbage, or potato and cheese, but also younger folks who may or may not speak Polish working down bowls of caraway-flecked sauerkraut and heaps of smashed potatoes in gravy, accompanied by something big and meaty: a pork roll, perhaps, stuffed with mushrooms, green peppers, onions, bacon, paprika, and a few allspice berries, or uncured spareribs cooked in sauerkraut until tender. These meals are almost entirely drained of color, but they’re big, inexpensive, and preceded by baskets of fresh bread and butter. —Mike Sula

Przybylo’s White Eagle

6839 N. Milwaukee, Niles | 847-647-0660

$$

POLISH/RUSSIAN/EASTERN EUROPEAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-SATURDAY | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

It’s a banquet hall without any atmosphere, but if you’re seeking a traditional home-style Polish dinner you’ll find it here. Large bowls are served family style, with six different types of pierogi among the options. Meat selections range from Polish sausage with sauerkraut to golabki (hearty stuffed cabbage rolls) to a flavorful goulash that would make a Polish grandmother swell with pride. Perfect for groups, the White Eagle doesn’t refill bowls once they’re empty, but that’s hardly necessary; more likely you’ll be taking home leftovers. —Ben Dooley

Red Apple

3121 N. Milwaukee | 773-588-5781

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

For Polish home cooking, the Red Apple—or Czerwone Jabluszko—is a real find. The impressive spread includes homemade kielbasa, pierogi, golabki (stuffed cabbage), blintzes and apple pancakes, roast chicken and duck, pork with plum filling, turkey legs, carve-it-yourself roast beef and ham, and in case that’s not enough for you, soup, salad, and dessert are included. There’s a second location at 6474 N. Milwaukee (773-763-3407). —Laura Levy Shatkin

Smak-Tak

5961 N. Elston | 773-631-6171

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

This tiny, tidy Polish chalet on Elston is much beloved for its deep bowls of hearty soups (clear amber-colored chicken noodle, creamy mushroom, thick barley), its plump, butter-drenched pierogi (tangy cheese and potato, finely ground meat, assorted fruit flavors, incredible mushroom and sauerkraut), and ample, thoughtfully accented dinners such as hunter’s stew, stuffed cabbage, and breaded cutlets, each served with sides of pickled vegetable salads or potatoes and topped with generous dollops of pure white sour cream. But there’s one plate in particular among that assortment that is a destroyer, an absolutely delicious but insurmountable plate. To order and finish it is essentially to commit yourself to an extended period of slack-jawed catalepsy, preferably in a reclined position, attended by concerned loved ones. The Hungarian-style pancake is formed by one of Smak Tak’s enlarged but delicately crispy potato pancakes folded over a massive portion of mushroomy, peppery beef goulash, topped by a length of coiled sour cream and a mocking sprinkle of chopped parsley. It took me two days to finish it off—and I had help. —Mike Sula

Stanley’s Tavern

4258 S. Ashland | 773-927-0033

$

LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-FRIDAY | CLOSED Saturday-sUNDAY

There’s no sign outside indicating that this remnant of Whiskey Row is a place where you can get a cheap draft and a hot, hearty lunch. But every workday you can find truck drivers, managers from Tyson or Edsal Manufacturing, or guys from the bricklayers union bellied up to the bar or squeezed behind tables, powering down Wanda Kurek’s daily special—and maybe a cold one. Some of them have been coming for decades. Kurek wakes at six each morning and reads her Trib and Sun-Times before she starts the day’s cooking, all done on an O’Keefe & Merritt porcelain stove that’s almost 60 years old. She might make baked ham with raisin sauce, or roast pork with dumplings, stuffed cabbage and potato salad, or breaded chicken breast on buttered noodles, or Cornish hens. For six bucks you get a heaping plate with a vegetable or two, but on days when Wanda decides to make prime rib she charges seven. Soups—split pea, oxtail with barley, chicken noodle—run about a buck and a half a bowl. There are Vitner’s potato chips behind the bar, and if you want a root beer it’s Filbert’s, bottled right up the street. —Mike Sula

Staropolska Restaurant

5249 W. Belmont | 773-736-5230

$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Staropolska’s smorgasbord emphasizes Polish favorites such as kielbasa, cabbage rolls, kishka, and pierogi but includes American offerings, such as fried chicken. As with most Polish meals, you won’t still be hungry after eating here. At these prices ($7.95 for adults during the week, $9.95 on weekends) don’t expect gourmet offerings, but you will get hearty fare. Fresh fruit (kiwi, strawberries, grapes, grapefruit) and delicious layer cakes cut into small pieces cap off the meal. Coffee and soup are extra—$1.65 and $1.50 respectively—but worth it. —Claire Dolinar

Szalas

5214 S. Archer | 773-582-0300

$$$

LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

The Gorale, a sheepherding people of the Polish highlands, have a substantial community on the south side—which explains the presence of not one but two fantasy European hunting lodges straight out of the Brothers Grimm on an otherwise mundane stretch of Archer Avenue northeast of Midway. (The other is the Polish Highlanders Association.) The wealth of rustic detail at Szalas includes a working waterwheel, stuffed animal heads, and staff in billowy peasant dress—you can even dine in a sleigh if you can fit. The most interesting among the appetizers is moskul, a flatbread that looks like pita but is made of flour, potato, and eggs; it’s accompanied by a sheep’s cream cheese called bryndza and a schmear made of lard studded with bits of smalec, Polish bacon. The lard is delicious, though non-Gorale may find it hard to eat more than a bite or two without health qualms. Entrees don’t do anything to reverse the reputation of Polish food as hearty, though the Highlander’s Special—veal goulash inside a large potato pancake and dotted with sheep’s sour cream—is almost delicate for its kind. So too with dessert: fluffy orange-scented cheese blintzes that came with loads of fruit and vanilla ice cream. Service was a bit blase at an early seating but weekends, when there’s live Gorale music and the bar stays open till 2, are reportedly quite lively. —Michael Gebert