Along the back wall of Kurowski's Sausage Shop, there are a series of red signs with white lettering. Jałowcowa, Kiełbasa myśliwska, Wiejska. Below them, sausages hang from hooks in front of a mirrored wall under fluorescent lights. If, like me, you don't speak a lick of Polish (my repertoire begins and ends with "kielbasa") it can be a little bit intimidating. Especially because the stout Polish lady behind you in line is going to start tapping her foot with impatience in a moment. She smells a hint of hesitation.
Walking into Kurowski's and ordering "kielbasa" would probably get you laughed out of the store. Because that's like walking into Baskin Robbins and ordering "ice cream." Kielbasa really just means sausage, so to navigate Kurowski's, you'd better come prepared with some more specific instructions. And you'd better do your research, including writing out exactly how to pronounce what you want phonetically. Because there's no guarantee you'll get any help from the counter, and you'll look foolish pointing and mumbling.
There's something charming about a place that refuses to pay much attention to English. It's instantly humbling—the way you feel in a foreign country when you've failed to learn any local words, sheepishly assuming everyone will just speak English. In fact, while I was taking pictures, a man walked up to me and started scolding me in Polish. When my face registered no response, he looked confused, then I said "English?" and he said "no pictures."
In this way, Kurowski's is an unruly country of its own, tucked into a storefront on Milwaukee Avenue in Avondale. Inside, it's stocked with miles of smoked, dried, and fresh sausages, alongside other cured and fresh meats and a slew of imported European groceries for dirt cheap (if you'd prefer the Polish version of Hellman's mayonnaise, say, then this is your place). There is also a selection of baked goods, cheeses, pickles and more.
Thankfully, I did do my research and had a notebook ready, thanks to this article from Time Out Chicago with some phonetic help. I ordered Jałowcowa (jah-wuv-SO-vah), a sausage characterized by the juniper berries (and the use of juniper wood for smoking it); Kiełbasa weselna (keow-BAH-sah vuh-SELL-neh), a traditional style characterized by garlic and perhaps the closest thing to what most Americans understand to be kielbasa; and a couple links of surowa (soo-RO-voh), the word for "fresh" sausage that's not cooked or smoked.
The grand total for these sausages, close to 4 pounds, was $5.90. They were all excellent, made with the kind of expertise that only comes with years of experience.
Kurowski's Sausage Shop
2976 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618 (map)