Homemade dumplings with mushrooms. Photo courtesy of Shaiith via Shutterstock.
One of the most essential pieces of the patchwork that is Chicago is the Polish community and it’s been that way since the 1850s. Three separate, but large waves of immigration over the past century have contributed to Polish Chicago, or “Polonia.” More than just a minor subculture, Polonia contributed to the political, religious, educational, and cultural life of the Chicago we know today.
We’ll take a look at some iconic Polish dishes and the best places in the Chicagoland area to sample each one.
Pierogi. Photo courtesy of B. and E. Dudzinscy via Shutterstock.
As one of the national foods of Poland, the Pierogi is a delicious and versatile staple. While fillings are truly only limited by your imagination, the most traditional Pierogi fillings are forcemeat (meat and onion), sauerkraut, and mushrooms. But, Polonia fillings include bacon, sauerkraut, and even potato and cheese. If you’re ready to take your Pierogi love to the next level, you need to stop by the annual Pierogi Festival in Whiting, Indiana. Until then, these Chicago spots serve up the best Pierogi outside of Poland.
3030 North Milwaukee, Chicago, IL 60618
Authentic Polish cuisine at an affordable price is the name of the game at Staropolska Restaurant. Devour one, or three, of the seven Pierogi varieties. Whether you’re craving potato and cheese, or a sweeter bite with strawberries or blueberries, it’ll be hard to turn down another helping.
169 North Wells Street, Chicago, IL 60606
Pierogi Heaven touts itself as having “the best Pierogi in town,” and there are hoards of loyal patrons that will vehemently agree. This cozy, and authentic spot is sure to please. You’ll have over 10 Pierogi flavors to choose from, but rest assured, each one comes with fried onion, bacon, and sour cream.
Potato pancakes. Photo courtesy of Jeff Wasserman via Shutterstock.
Potato pancakes are a classic Polish comfort food. Referred to in Poland as “placki ziemniaczane,” these shallow-fried delicious morsels include the perfect combination of potatoes, eggs, and flour. Traditional toppings in Poland include meat sauce or pork crisps. While in Chicago you’ll more likely find your potato pancake topped with sour cream, applesauce, mushrooms, or even cottage cheese.
5961 North Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL 60646
The cozy, wood-beamed chalet atmosphere of Smak-Tak! serves as the perfect complement to the hearty Polish fare served up here. The authentic Polish spot gives generous portions of traditionally prepared of all types of favorites, but the potato pancakes are the must-try. Fried to perfection and served with cream and applesauce, you’ll have enough for lunch for tomorrow, too.
Cured sausage. Photo courtesy of Kamila i Wojtek Cyganek via Shutterstock.
Poles take their sausage very seriously. And when it’s as good as theirs is, it really comes as no surprise. Even today, the Polish Meat Industry in Warsaw publishes standards for meat products and sausages. However, the Polish Government Standards for Polish Smoked Sausage have remained unchanged for over 60 years. Authentic Polish Smoked Sausage is natural hardwood smoked and includes pork, salt, pepper, sugar, garlic, marjoram, and sodium nitrate. The butcher shops and delicatessens that made this list of top Polish cuisine are deeply rooted in their traditions. We all certainly reap the delicious benefits of them doing so.
Kurowski’s Sausage Shop
2976 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618
A more authentic Polish experience you won’t find in the city limits. While you may have difficultly conversing with the staff at Kurowski’s Sausage Shop, you’ll certainly understand the universal language of smoked meats. The kielbasa is the best in the city and the long lines on the weekends make that abundantly clear.
Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen
5330 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60641
Since 1972, the Luszcz family has been dishing out homemade smoked sausage and other Polish delicacies to the people of Chicago. At Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen, the sausages are made fresh on-premise every single day by traditionally trained sausage makers from Europe. You have to try the Polish-favorite Zywiecka, which uses a recipe that’s been passed down from generation to generation.
Borscht. Photo courtesy of Lisa A via Shutterstock.
Borscht is another staple in Polish cuisine. You’ll often see it gracing the table during Christmas Eve celebrations, but it certainly isn’t limited to holiday feasts. Typically, borscht recipes include beetroot, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, and beef bones. The most traditional Polish recipes call for the soup to be strained after simmering for some time, and to be served with a twist of lemon and sour cream. While some recipes will even include bacon or ham for an unforgettable smoky flavor.
1549 West Division Street, Chicago, IL 60642
You’ll feel as though you’re a member of a big Polish family when you visit Podhalanka. The inviting staff only adds to the neighborhood atmosphere at a place that can most closely rival the loving food from your Polish grandmother’s house. Order the Barszcz Czerwony for a traditional beetroot borscht, or opt for the Zurek White Borscht for another Polish classic.
Paczki. Photo courtesy of Brent Hofacker via Shutterstock.
Just as the Polish community serves up the most delectable lunch and dinner, they produce some of the most scrumptious sweets for breakfast or dessert enjoyment. The most common Polish treat you’ll come across in Chicago are Polish donuts, or paczki. These round, spongy, yeast cakes are typically stuffed with mouthwatering fillings like fruit preserves, liqueur, custard, or chocolate. Then, they’re topped with powdered sugar, icing, chocolate, and oftentimes an orange peel. Paczki are more than just a delightful indulgence; they are the signature food of “Fat Thursday,” the Thursday before Ash Wednesday (not to be confused with “Fat Tuesday”). Each year, Poles eat more than 100 million paczki on that single day!
Oak Mill Bakery
5753 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60634
More than 80,000 of the 1 million paczki consumed on Fat Thursday will come from the Oak Mill Bakery. Bogna Iwanowska-Solak came to the United States in 1981 and decided to make Chicago her new home. Five years later, Bogna and her husband opened Oak Mill Bakery. Still going strong today, Oak Mill imports many of its ingredients directly from Europe. That means that you’ll have trouble finding a more indulgent and authentic paczki than what this bakery fries up.
With over a century of influence, the Polish community has become so engrained into the quilt that is Chicago, it’s difficult to discern where the European culture ends and Chicago’s begins. One thing is certain, when you dine on Chicago’s Polish delicacies, you’ll be transported to Poland with each bite you take.
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor’s, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn’t really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.