Standing in the Polonia triangle—an island of concrete in the middle of where Division, Ashland, and Milwaukee all intersect—you're presented with a number of options, all of which might make you scratch your head. You could, for example, buy a cheap cell phone, go to a wig store, and then eat a carne asada taco at any of the three La Pasadita taquerias. Or you could sift through some old vinyl at a record store, buy some toothpaste at CVS, and then head into converted bank vault at The Bedford and have a cocktail. Or if you're feeling litigious, you can always go upstairs and sue somebody.
This crazy intersection tells a story about how the neighborhood is rapidly changing. But one building, a house, on the south side of the intersection hasn't changed at all: Podhalanka. As my esteemed co-correspondent Dennis Lee has already noted in his coverage of the place for the Over 21 Club column, Podhalanka is a Chicago institution, successfully serving home-style Polish food through a variety of demographic and neighborhood changes for nearly three decades.
Walking inside is indeed like walking into a home: it feels like a hodgepodge living room that hasn't been updated in years. Random Christmas lights are strung along the walls, and what appears to be a fake white leather couch is pushed against one wall. Simple tables extend toward the back of the restaurant parallel to the bar, and in the back, the kitchen turns out extremely traditional old-school fare.
Podhalanka's pierogi are probably its most talked-bout menu item, and they're delicious (always ask for a mixture of the various fillings), as are a number of items on their menu, sent out in humongous portions. But what sometimes flies under the radar, partly because it's not front-and-center on the menu, is their Polish sausage sandwich.
While they don't make the sausage in-house (it comes from Kurowski's, the butcher shop where I was scolded in Polish for taking pictures), the preparation is excellent. If you've only ever had a Polish sausage on a bun, the most common way it's prepared, you owe yourself a taste of this sandwich preparation, split and stuffed between two slices of sturdy bread, which soften as they soak up the drippings from the sausage. To round it out, Podhalanka adds onions that are just barely beginning to caramelize, which somehow are wonderfully sweet while still maintaining an important crunch.
There's a reason some Chicago institutions stick around. And no matter what happens to this crazy intersection in Chicago, I'm willing to bet Podhalanka will still be around.
1549 West Division Street, Chicago, IL 60642 (map)