Here’s a joke they tell in Poland: What are the three biggest Polish cities? Warsaw, Krakow and Chicago.
There certainly are a lot of Polish-Americans in Chicago, so everybody there knows what Polish food is. Many Angelenos, though, don’t know Polish food--or rather, they know it as Jewish food: borscht, roast brisket, meat-filled dumplings (pierogi, much the same as kreplach) and many of the other comfort foods my grandmother made.
Polish and Jewish food differ primarily because of Jewish dietary laws. The Poles cook many pork dishes and freely combine meat and dairy products. They will serve pierogi with a cheese filling at the same meal as boiled beef, or even top a meaty beet soup or a bacon-filled dumpling with sour cream.
You’ll find excellent versions of such dishes at Krakus, the Valley’s only Polish restaurant. It’s a modest place. One side is an import shop stocking plum-filled chocolates, garlicky pickles, soup mixes and the like. The other side serves as a restaurant with four or five booths.
At the rear is a fascinating deli counter. It’s a brief education in the cold cuts of eastern Europe, with an emphasis on homemade sausages (kielbasy), of which it offers literally dozens of varieties. Czosnekowa (pronounced chosneKOva), for instance, is garlic sausage, while jalowcowa (yahwofTSOva) is a dry salami flavored with juniper berries.
Krakus sells sausage either by the piece or by the pound. You can also try cold cuts in a sandwich. I ordered a combination sandwich from the menu and got an enormous Slavic hero, loaded with tongue, roast pork, cheese and various types of salami, together with lettuce, tomato and onion.
A sit-down meal would naturally begin with a soup, such as red barszcz (the familiar beet borscht), white barszcz (a potato soup with sausage), a hearty mushroom-barley soup much like Nate ‘n’ Al’s, or something called dill-pickle soup, a sublime potato and cabbage soup subtly laced with cucumbers and vinegar.
The entrees are hearty and then some, and bargain-priced; only one costs more than $7. The biggest bargain is bigos, a Polish peasant dish I ate every day that I rode on the Polish National Railway system.
I recently read a description of bigos as a back-of-the-stove stew, and that’s quite exact. It’s basically scraps of leftover pork and beef stewed with mild sauerkraut heavily spiked with caraway.
At Krakus, you get a mammoth plate of the stuff, with bread and sour cream, for only $3.50. It’s habit-forming, but fortunately the habit isn’t an expensive one.
I’d put Krakus’ pierogi z miesem up against the vaunted Chinese pot stickers at Dumpling Master or Mandarin Deli any day. These wonderful steamed dumplings are filled with minced beef and pork and liberally sprinkled with crumbled bacon. Spoon on some sour cream if you really want to splurge.
What the menu calls pierogi Ruskie are like Ukrainian vareniki with some cheese in the potato filling; pierogi s kapusta i grzybami (gzheeBAHmi) have a nondescript filling of sauerkraut and mushrooms.
The two best entrees are probably stuffed cabbage (golabki, pronounced goWOHMPki) and roast beef brisket (pieczen wolowa; PYEHchen voWOva).
The cabbage rolls, with a gently spiced beef and rice filling, are blanketed in either a light tomato sauce or a heavier, cream-based mushroom gravy. The brisket, in its rich, oniony brown sauce, is the equal of any I’ve had locally. The four thick slices are richly flavored and fork-tender.
The kiszka at Krakus has the same name as the Jewish deli appetizer kishka, and it’s also made from gut (kiszka being the Polish word for intestine), but it’s utterly un-kosher; it’s a blood sausage, like a French boudin noir. Biala kielbasa, a pork sausage that you eat steamed, has a slightly spicy character like bratwurst.
The only actual dessert on the menu is nalesniki (naleshNEEki), crepes stuffed with either farmer’s cheese, plum jam or apple sauce and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
Another dessert, not on the menu but always available, is a rich poppy-seed strudel (sold by weight) of which my grandmother would have approved.
Krakus, 16226 Parthenia St., North Hills; (818) 893-9122. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, $14-$19.