Serious Eats: Chicago
Standing Room Only: Polka's Sausage & Deli
Polka Sausage & Deli
2401 N Clybourn Ave, Chicago, IL 60614 (map); 773-221-0395; polkasausage.com
The Short Order: Excellent house-made sausage.
Want Fries with That? Skip the fries and go for the pierogis.
Seats? A few tables.
Okay, two things up front. First, Polka Sausage & Deli is the only place where I've ordered a sandwich and had the chance to get a side of pierogis—three of them to be exact. Sure, you can get fresh cut fries if you'd like, but the fact that pierogis are even an option should clue you in to the type of place this is. Second, Polka's website also has one of the most hilarious spokesmodel photos I have ever seen in my life. I mean, this isn't quite NSFW, but her low-cut shirt cuts, um, really low. Kind of makes the Kronos models look innocent, no? Moving on.
Though it just opened up in Lincoln Park, Polka's is not new. In fact, the deli relocated from a storefront on the South Side, where it had been operating since 1945. While the pierogis are good—especially the potato ones, but I'll get to those in a minute—the real news here is the excellent house-made sausage. When comes to sausage making, experience matters.
You'd be hard pressed to find a better starting point than the smoked Polish sausage ($4.45), which just might be one of the best versions of Chicago classic I've ever eaten. No joke. Grilled to order, the casing is crisp, while the insides are tender and smokey, with just enough garlic flavor peeking through. It's topped with only some strong mustard and sauerkraut—which the deli also makes from scratch. The final masterstroke is a soft onion-studded roll that tenderly cradles the sausage while adding a hint of sweetness.
The standard Turano roll, which is used to house the German sedelova sausage ($4.95) isn't nearly as good of a partner—it's too doughy and tough—but the garlicky sausage is another winner. Though it also spends some time on the grill, the insides are extremely tender, with a strong garlic kick. While the bun drags it down a bit, this is a fine alternative to the Polish.
When you get past the sausage part of the menu, Polka's is less stellar, even if it serves totally solid deli classics. That's true of the Reuben ($4.95), which has all the components you want—corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing all on rye—with none of the excess that ruins other versions.
I'm not sure how I feel about the Polka sub ($4.95), a cold cut combo, of sorts. Once again, the doughy Turano roll gets in the way, but if you have a thing for old school subs, then you are cool with taking the good (salami and Polish ham) with the bad (sad tomato slice, cold piece of American cheese)
Oh, and what about the pierogis? You get three with a side order, and while not the absolute lightest versions I've ever sampled, they are tender and flavorful. As I mentioned above, the creamy potato filled pierogi is probably the way to go, though the spinach and Parmesan one also works.
Though the fresh cut fries are decent, a lack of crispness holds them back. Plus, why waste your side on a dish other stands do exceptionally well when you can get another side of pierogis.
It'll take time to see whether Polka's new neighborhood welcomes it as well as the old one did. If Lincoln Park knows what is good for it, Polka's should be here for a long time.