Early on in this column, I visited the temple of encased meats known as Gene's Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square. It's a beautiful, pristine place that almost glistens, with modern refrigerators, fresh produce, a wine selection, and a beer garden on top. But many of the sausages you see at Lincoln Square originate at a more unassuming shop on Belmont Avenue much further west: the original Gene's Sausage Shop. It's a little rougher around the edges, a little more faded, and a lot more charming.
The interior is vast, and yet you immediately feel cramped upon walking in. The suspended ceiling tiles are low and yellowing, and the countless aisles stretch back into seeming infinity, full of a rambling selection of products, some of which seem like they've been on the shelves for years (the store is about 20,000 square feet).
However, if you can make your way to the far back corner, there is a gleaming case dozens of feet long stuffed to the brim with all manner of encased and un-encased meats, as well as a mirrored back wall full of hanging smoked and cured sausages.
Thankfully, if you can find a lovely counter woman, you'll be fine (my first order was with a guy who was pretty gruff, so if that happens, slide down and try someone else). One could eat an entire meal on the good will of the counter woman, who fed four of us a steady and generous stream of smoked and cooked products, a giant sample for each of the four of us who were visiting, so that our mouths were full for several minutes trying to keep up with her.
The Wiejska Kielbasa is a fatter classic smoked sausage, what we might call the basic "kielbasa" (which just means "sausage" in Polish). The Podsuszone Kabanosy, or "Snack Sausage Extra Dry" is a cured and smoked skinny link. We also picked up a Kielbasa Grillowe BBQ Sausage, which is a fully-cooked sausage made for the grill, as well as some homemade pork hot dogs and a fresh link of sausage.
But the highlight of our samples was their kiszka, which she sliced up and served to us cold. Normally benefiting from a crisp up in the pan (or some time on the grill, per her recommendation), it was nonetheless some very excellent blood sausage even completely cold, full of barley and spices and meat with just enough blood to hold it together. For those who are kiszka curious, I can't think of a better place to start.
Above all, though, it's their prices that are the most astonishing, regularly dipping at or below $1/pound.
And if you're looking for Polish mayonnaise or pickled herring in a barrel, you won't be disappointed either, because there's far more than sausage at Gene's Sausage Shop. In fact, a helpful fellow patron, who likely noticed our general combination of bemusement and bewilderment, alerted us to the fact that their soup is excellent (we'll try it next time) and they have cans of Beck's beer for a buck each (the best price in town; we bought a couple 4-packs.)
Gene's Sausage Shop is not the most polished of experiences—especially when you compare it to their new website, with its slick branding and approachable voice and invitation to connect on Facebook—but it's absolutely worth a trip down Belmont for an authentic experience.