Just south of Glendale, at the western fringe of Eagle Rock, there's a mini-mall at Verdugo Road and York Boulevard that has just about everything you could ever need: mini-mart, dry cleaner, hair salon, chiropractor, Filipino suckling pig takeout shop . . . and one of the few Polish restaurants in Southern California.
Polka has been there for years, but somehow it's never learned to raise its prices, so it's still one of the best bargains in town. You can have a big meal for as little as $6--even $5 at lunch, though in that case the entree will have to be kielbasa. The most you can pay is $9, and that's for everything but a beverage: mug of homemade soup, exotic Polish salad, meat entree, starch (rice, potatoes or garlicky noodles), four vegetables and even a tiny dessert.
It's hearty food--none meatier--but Polka does warrant the sign in its window reading "So Healthy Nutritious," at least more than you might think. This is sort of light Polish food. Most of what's on your huge plate is vegetables.
The decor will make you giddy, unless this is how you decorate your home--namely, with everything that has ever come your way in life. The walls are loaded with random stuff, starting with half a dozen clocks. Plush animal toys hang from the ceiling along with Christmas lights. There are hearts, butterflies, plastic greenery, Polish beer bottles, plaster copies of Roman sculpture, a photo of the pope, a Rio de Janeiro license plate. The soundtrack runs to music from half a century ago--Marlene Dietrich, Louis Armstrong and what sounds like the occasional Polish ballad.
As soon as you sit down, they bring you the soup of the day in a big mug (don't bother reading the label on it, it's always for some other kind of soup). I've had a tangy sausage-sauerkraut soup, a lightly creamy bean soup and a cream of tomato, all obviously homemade. Then you get a cup of salad, which is generally grated carrots and beets with, say, sliced cabbage and turnips and a few wisps of lettuce, all in a garlicky vinaigrette given an oddly Asian quality by blackened sesame seeds.
What you expect to find at a Polish restaurant is kielbasa sausage, stuffed cabbage and pierogi, which are not baked dumplings, like the Russian piroshki, but giant ravioli. You get two long links of the kielbasa; it's a little peppery and a little garlicky but mostly smoky, with a smooth hot dog-like texture. The stuffed cabbage (golabki; pronounced go-WOHMP-kee)--two big oblongs in just a bit of tomato sauce--has a light-textured, meatloaf-like filling of beef, pork and chicken. The pierogi come with the same meat filling unless you order a quite tasty vegetarian filling of sauerkraut and mushrooms.
All the Central European countries freely borrow each other's dishes, so Polka has a Polish version of goulash (gulasz), a plain pork stew with a bit of paprika in it. On the side you get little chewy bullets of potato dumpling (kopytka). The pork schnitzel (kotlet schabowy) is rather better. The fairly thin, breaded pork loin cutlet is fried crisp and golden (with very little greasiness), and topped with a couple of stewed mushrooms.
There are people who wouldn't consider ordering the fried chicken livers (watrobka), but they're fools--these are actually quite delicate. Klopsy (which can be ordered as a side dish, like the stuffed cabbage) are big meatballs of the same beef-pork-chicken mixture used in the stuffed cabbage, except that they're served in a rich, meaty onion gravy.
And that gravy brings us to the most impressive meat dishes, the "roasts"--actually, braised meats, because they're cooked in moist heat until they soften into a highly flavored protein mush in a meaty onion gravy. Pieczen (PYEH-chen) is braised beef (with a bit of carrot flavor, giving it a hint of pot roast), and baranina is braised lamb. If the baranina wasn't so devoid of gaminess, I'd say it was mutton, because it's far meatier than lamb. This is lamb for beef lovers.
You automatically get a sober little dessert, which might be chocolate pudding, custard with berry jam or a cake topped with stewed fruit and orange gelatin. If you want something more sinful, there are some Starbucks ice cream desserts.
Polka serves no alcoholic beverages, but it does have a long list of herbal teas. So healthy nutritious.
Polka, 4112 Verdugo Road, Los Angeles. (323) 255-7887. Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; dinner, 3-9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$18. What to Get: pierogi, kielbasa, kotlet schabowy, pieczen, baranina.