by Todd Abrams
Comfort food is just another way to describe dishes that are simply prepared and reasonably priced. It also defines the menu at Polonia Restaurant in Hamtramck. That's not to say Polonia is some one-note diner slinging cheap, canned hash at seniors and truck drivers. Though the menu is full of traditional Polish food, heavy on the meat and potatoes, they more or less recognize that the majority of us don't work on a farm 14 hours a day.
Being a mere Yemans Street parking lot distance from Polish Village Café, there are bound to be comparisons, and you'll likely find an equal number of diners proclaiming the one Polish restaurant they prefer is, as a matter of course, the best. The major differences are more atmospheric than having to do with the quality of the food. Polonia does not allow smoking and feels more like a restaurant than a rowdy holiday gathering in your grandmother's basement. They also have a device that accepts plastic money. At any rate, we're not taking sides.
The decor is a hodgepodge of wooden curios and colorful plates beneath the warm pink glow of coated fluorescent lamps (they must dust daily, as all these ornaments are shiny clean). In contrast, the clinical blue light of LED fixtures illuminates the tables. Booths have floral-print fabric backs and wooden seats with small rectangles of carpet to insulate the posterior. Curved swords are mounted on the walls above the tables. A huge mural of a quaint European village scene is painted across the far back wall. Taken together with the accordion tunes piped through the speakers, it makes for a unique and comfortable setting.
There is no real sit-down bar, but drinks in all forms are readily served. There is a short list of cocktails and liquors. The most interesting are $1.50 shots of wisniowka, a sweetish cherry vodka appropriate for a pre- or post-dinner ritual, and the Tatanka, a mixture of bison-grass vodka and apple juice, purportedly the most popular drink in Poland. It makes us think of Kevin Costner and his native buddies in Dances with Wolves yapping back and forth about buffalo, but it's actually a pleasant tipple, smooth and drinkable.
Along with a few of North America's favorite lagers there are Polish beers available. Draft Okocim lager is our choice for its superior malty body and crisp hop finish — a far step above the standard fizzy yellow beer for roughly the same price. Wine is also available.
If diet be damned, dive right in to an appetizer of smalec ze skwareczkami, a bread spread consisting of pork lard, bacon crumbs, onion and spices. It tastes something like what's left at the bottom of a frying pan after breakfast — in other words, damn good. (There's no denying fat as an irresistible condiment.)
There is a nice lineup of soups, starting with a basic chicken noodle that kids seem to enjoy. The dill pickle soup is creamy, rich and redolent of dill without being heavy. A good cup to whet the appetite is the thin, sweet-and-sour broth of the beet soup. The duck blood soup is heartier and on the sweet side. When you include the cabbage soup, there's a bowl for every taste.
The pierogi we use to judge all others is surprisingly hand-produced by a fussy twenty-something friend with brightly dyed red hair. Based on his Polish grandmother's recipe, they are an excellent balance of tender while still having some chew and a moist filling after pan-frying. Polonia makes them just as good. Get them stuffed with potato, cheese, kraut or meat.
Monday through Saturday, there are several daily specials running, from chicken pie at $6.50 to half of a tender, falling-off-the-bone roasted duck for $9.95. These include a basket of light rye bread and soup or salad. A dish of corned beef and cabbage was somewhat disappointing, with what looked like pre-packaged corned beef. But, conversely, if you walk through the kitchen on your way to the bathrooms, you might find the cooks preparing their wonderfully spiced fresh sausages. And who can resist city chicken you can cut with a spoon?
You can get cheesecake and the annoyingly ubiquitous tiramisu for dessert but, by far, we prefer the dessert crêpes that come with several filling options. Our favorites were finished with chocolate, whipped cream and sour cherry syrup.
If you're looking for good, hearty and affordable food in a charming atmosphere, you can't do much better than Polonia. Food celebrity Anthony Bourdain knows. His food show came through and filmed earlier this year. You can watch the video at polonia-restaurant.net.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.