The Over 21 Club: Podhalanka
Editor's note: The Over 21 Club series features Chicago restaurants that have been around for over 21 years. They must be doing something right, so we'll visit them and see why.
1549 W. Division St, Chicago IL 60642; (map); 773-486-6655;
Open Since: 1983
Cost: Soup ($3.50); Pierogi (6.75); Pork Cutlet ($9.75), Potato Pancakes ($6.75)
I've known about Podhalanka for a long time. In fact, I've lived in this neighborhood for eight years now, and to be honest, I was always sort of chicken about coming here. The facade of the building isn't the friendliest, and I just sort of put it off. Until now.
The other thing is, I don't know jack about Polish food. I know about pierogi, kielbasa, sauerkraut, and that cabbage roll thing. I've even had the Maxwell Street Polish (Polish sausage, mustard, grilled onions, that's it!). But that's about all I know.
Finally, I decided to grow a gigantic pair of balls and go. You know, because eating and writing articles for you Serious Eaters is such a huge sacrifice on my part.
This is their żurek ($3.50), a sour rye soup, which sounds sort of gross by description, but it ended up being delicious and addictive. If you like dill pickles, you'll have no problem with it. They garnish it with a ton of fresh dill, which, aside from the unique sourness, is the other main flavor. Hidden inside the soup is sliced smoky sausage.
While the menu states that you must pick between potato and cheese, meat, or sauerkraut pierogi, they'll let you order a blend of all three ($7.75). They are all boiled with a great thick, chewy exterior, and come with caramelized onions and a healthy dose of sour cream. My favorite was the meat pierogi, but don't order them if you don't enjoy the unmistakeable taste of liver. The sauerkraut pierogi were filled with good homemade sauerkraut, and the cheese and potato pierogi were strangely filled with blintz filling. No potato that I could detect.
The pork cutlet ($9.75) was beautiful, but really oily. It's good comfort food, but hard to finish, even if you have a high tolerance to fried food. The mashed potatoes were roughly mashed—meaning there were a lot of big chunks in them, which I loved, and they were covered in dill. And that brown gravy? Hardly any flavor, which was puzzling as hell.
The gorgeous potato pancakes ($6.75) come with applesauce and sour cream and had a great dark brown color to both sides. I wanted to like them. I wanted to love them. But they were saturated with oil, and neither the applesauce nor sour cream could change that fact.
I might not be a Polish food expert, and I can't explain the conflicted gut feeling I have, but Podhalanka inexplicably captures the essence of Chicago food, despite the heaviness of it all. I can't stop thinking about how much I want to go back and try everything else. It tastes like Chicago.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.