Darkness had fallen by 5:30. Snow was blanketing the city with the evil intent of becoming black crusty ice a few days later. How do you fight back against the polar vortex under such conditions? Well, how do you think your grandmother did in the old country? She made a Polish vortex of rib-sticking food, that's how, to fight the cold from the inside. We bundled ourselves into the sled, grabbed a shotgun in case we were followed up Elston by wolves, and set off for the next best thing to Grandma's house: Smak Tak.
As a genre, Polish restaurants tend to fall into the category of "All pretty much the same," but you can find reasons to regard Smak Tak on the far northwest side as the best of the bunch—Michelin did, giving it the only Bib Gourmand to go to one. First of all, it's got a cozy hunting lodge atmosphere that makes it feel like a place that might have been around for 60 years, though it's only a little more than a decade old. (The rustic look marks it as a Gorale establishment, the Polish Highlanders from the mountains.) The hospitality of owner Piotr Lakomy is pleasant if a bit diffident, in an Eastern European way that may involve Polish TV playing loudly through your meal.
But the main thing is just that the food is all nicely handcrafted—reportedly by Lakomy's mother-in-law, though the only time I've seen who's working back there was when it was on Check, Please!. It starts with soup, sweet and sour borsch (no T at the end) or a well-balanced mushroom soup with orzo-like pasta.
The menu ranges over classic Polish, modern Polish (kind of generic things like chicken kababs), and some vaguely American things (baby back ribs). You want to stick with the first category. The fluffy pierogi rival any dumpling in Chinatown (I like sauerkraut-mushroom and potato cheese; you can mix and match). The crispy potato pancakes are likewise a contender for best in town; next time I go somewhere for a corned beef sandwich I may arrive with these in my back pocket.
Meat dishes tend to come in large and extra large; one that's satisfying but not quite as heavy as some is the hunter's stew, which mixes smoky veal and sausage with sauerkraut. If heaviness is no object, go straight to the Hungarian style pancake, which wraps a full serving of hearty goulash in a potato pancake the size of a Skoda hubcap. With a hearty enough appetite, you'll finish the leftovers on only the second night. One taste I haven't acquired is for the gummy, pale Silesian dumplings; they always remind me of P.G. Wodehouse's crack: "If this is Upper Silesia, just imagine what Lower Silesia must be like!"
Even as Chicago must be the capital of Polish food in America, it's not a cuisine that Chicagoans pay much attention to—compared to Mexican, say. But it has its place and that place is in your tummy on a snowy evening. While I was there shooting (and eating) these pictures, a Korean extended family came in and occupied both the bar and a table. They knew the score on what you eat on a cold night in Chicago.