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Pole Position

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  I just keep on chugging along on here churning out one great review after another.  In fact, I just recently passed my 200th post on my blog, so if this is your first time coming to my page, check it out here.  It showcases the variety of cultures and native dishes I’ve sampled throughout the years and my travels.  I hope you enjoy it.  Today’s post hits a little closer to home culturally since I’m going to be talking about Polish food.

Chicago occupies a special place in Polish history given that it has long been a hub for Polish immigrants coming to America due to the need for cheap labor in the Union Stockyards starting in the latter half of the 19th Century.  So many immigrants ended up coming to my hometown that it now has more people of Polish descent than the Polish capital of Warsaw.

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I am one of those people of Polish descent, and my family enjoys many aspects of the culture from the music to the food.  I’ve been trying to learn more Polish, but I have a long way to go to master the extremely difficult language that seems to be an alphabet soup with special vowels and an avalanche of consonants rammed together. 350px-PolishDumskis However, it doesn’t take much to love the cuisine.  I can only describe it as a mix between German and Russian food with some Polish ingenuity and heartiness to endure very hard times.  Typically, my family and I enjoy classic Polish dishes like pierogis, kielbasa, kapusta, and kolaczki at family celebrations, and I’ve visited some great Polish restaurants in my grandparents’ neighborhood by Midway Airport.  However, they seemingly can never make (insert food here) as well as babcia (grandmother), but I recently visited a Polish restaurant that made it feel like you’re sitting in your babcia’s  kitchen.  The place in question is called Podhalanka located in the Polish Triangle area on Division.

The outside looks more like a place you’d come to get keys made than a restaurant.  IMG_3793My girlfriend had never been to a Polish restaurant, so I was honored to bring her somewhere to get a taste of my culture.  We walked through the door to find a spartan interior that had a bar and plenty of long tables covered in plastic, Kmart tablecloths. IMG_3788 In typical Polish fashion, there was no inanely grinning hostess at the front to greet us.  Instead, there was a gruff looking woman in an apron who mumbled something when we walked in.  We then scanned each other to see if she spoke English and I Polish.  I just said “Table for two”, and we had our pick of seats.  She gave us menus slower than other customers for some reason.  Looking over the selection, I could tell that this stuff was no-frills and just like what I saw in the motherland when I visited Krakow.  While I wanted to go for my comfort zone with a dish like gołąbki (literally:  pidgeons, really stuffed pork cabbage rolls) or kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet), I knew I had to get the zurek (white borscht) ($3.80) and sztuka miesa w sosie chrzanowym (boiled beef with horseradish sauce) ($10.50).  The curmudgeon of a woman who greeted us at the door, who I assumed was the owner, took our orders quite quickly.  Janice ordered her food, the pieczen wieprzowa (roast pork) ($10.50), but then the old woman was suddenly aglow when I properly pronounced each of the choices for my order.  Looks like I still got skillz.  The old woman said ok, and I thanked her in Polish which she appreciated.  While we were waiting, I looked at all of the random Polish souvenirs and cultural artifacts referencing various parts of Polish culture like the newly sanctified Karol Wotyla a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, the Polish white eagle, and the black Madonna or Our Lady of Czestochowa.  My zurek came out first, and I was pumped.  It was a translucent broth punctuated with small bits of dill floating on the surface and large chunks of sausage bobbing in the tasty sea.IMG_3789  From the first to the last gulp, I loved this piping hot bowl of goodness.  IMG_3794The broth itself was sour and meaty yet tinged with a dill bite I really enjoyed. IMG_3797 As for the disks of kielbasa, they were substantial, flavorful, and plentiful throughout the bowl.  While I was enjoying this super soup, we also got a basket filled with slices of white rye bread.  It was a slice (pun intended) of the restaurants in my grandparents’ neighborhood complete with the little packages of butter.  The bread crusts were especially helpful when used to mop up some of the soup.  While I was midway through my soup, she brought out a salad complete with the basic vegetables used in 90 percent of Polish recipes bar cabbage and potatoes. IMG_3790 It wasn’t anything spectacular with the cucumbers and tomatoes slathered in a semi-sweet dressing and a purple pile of pickled beets on the side, but all of the ingredients were really fresh.  My personal favorite were the pickled beets since they were super tangy.  Right as we finished the salad, our main entrees finally emerged.  Both of our dishes looked similar in the fact that they were large pieces of meat slathered in a gravy or sauce with a side of mashed potatoes.  After that, the commonalities ended.  Janice’s roast pork didn’t taste like much, but my boiled beef had a life of its own.IMG_3791  The beef was extremely tender and thankfully enhanced with the feisty horseradish sauce with a slight sinus-clearing kick in each forkful.IMG_3792  Said sauce extended to the mashed potatoes, and I use the term “mashed” in the loosest sense.  It was more like semi-clumped potatoes, but like the beef, there were no seasonings to be had here aside from the horseradish sauce.  Either way, it was a hearty meal that made me think of home.  I’d like to go back there to try some of the pierogi or perhaps some potato pancakes.

I paid the bill, and I saw that I got charged for the soup and salad, but Janice did not for her salad.  Perhaps the old lady was kind hearted after all and made my visit complete.  So, if you’re on the northside and want to try some great, down-home Polish cooking at reasonable prices, check out Podhalanka.  The service might be a bit brusque, but you’ll just have to trust babcia on this one.

Podhalanka on Urbanspoon

Punch House: A Real Knockout

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At the punch-bowl’s brink,
Let the thirsty think,
What they say in Japan:
First the man takes a drink,
Then the drink takes a drink,
Then the drink takes the man!
– Edward Rowland Sill 
Truer words were never spoken by Mr. Sill, a mostly forgotten American poet, especially in regard to today’s post on Mastication Monologues where I entered the exciting world of punch making.
My friend Janice had mentioned that she had extra tickets to a punch making class at an establishment called “Punch House“, so I agreed to partake in this mysterious endeavor.  I didn’t really know much about it aside from it being located in the vibrant center of Mexican culture in Chicago, a.k.a. Pilsen.  However, I was shocked to find that it was located in Thalia Hall, a concert hall from 1890 that was modeled after Prague’s opera house.Exterior-1024x682  It is a relic of the original Czech inhabitants of Pilsen who eventually left once Latino immigrants began to enter the neighborhood.  Thalia Hall’s doors were closed in 1960, but in 2013, the hall has been reopened to the public as a music and dining venue.  Upon walking into Dusek’s, the restaurant on the first floor bearing the last name of Thalia Hall’s founder, we checked in and were quickly hustled downstairs to Punch House.  From Dusek’s to Punch House, I was taken aback with how elegantly it was decorated like a retro lounge that gave off a vibe of yesteryear with a touch of class.IMG_3069  We were greeted by the hosts and found an open booth complete with all of the tools we needed to make Dusek Punch, the house’s signature drink. IMG_3068 The class started with a brief history of punch and punch making.  Fun fact:  the word “punch” is actually a loan word from Hindi.  The drink and word came to England from India in the early 1600s due to early colonial trading routes.  “Punch” in Hindi means “five” which is a reference to the original five punch ingredients (tea/water, spices, alcohol, sugar, and lemon) or the balance of the following five elements of flavor.IMG_3071  It became a favorite drink for English traders and sailors as a refreshing alcoholic beverage that almost always contained rum but enough water to keep them semi-hydrated.  Ok, enough with the history lesson, let’s get down to the punch making.  First, we had to peel the lemons in order to make oleo-saccharum or literally “oily sugar” in Latin.  It would provide the citrus zest for our punch later.  Once the ladies peeled the lemons (I was deemed a threat to myself due to my spastic lemon peeling), we then poured some sugar on the peels to introduce the sweet element to our work in progress.  Soon thereafter, I was in charge of muddling the ingredients until the peels began to excrete their natural oils. IMG_3072 While I was going to town doing the ground and pound to the bowl’s contents, the waitress came over and patronizingly/humorously showed me proper muddling technique.  It became a reoccurring punch line (pun intended) throughout the class much to the amusement of my female companions.  However, it was my time to shine when I had to juice the lemons for the sour portion of the punch.  I should have had my jersey retired with how much juice I got out of the fruit since I even got a couple nods and “good jobs” from the staff when they walked by our table. 10260012_10101616963868411_1608183499052232420_n In the middle of my award-winning performance, they allowed us to order other pre-made punches or beverages to sample.  I originally went with a milk punch recipe from 1711, but since they didn’t have any made, I settled for the Philidelphia Fish House Punch ($8) which was originally invented in 1732.  Needless to say, for a 282 year old recipe, it tasted barely over 100 years old it was so refreshing.IMG_3075  It consisted of Gosling’s black seal rum, Landy cognac, Mathilde Peche liquor, lemon, and angostura bitters.  I could liken it to a sweet, peach-infused Hawaiian Punch that had a moderate kick to let you know you were drinking alcohol but didn’t rip your face off.  Eventually, it came time to combine all of the flavors in the large bowl since the oleo-saccharum was ready.  We started with pouring in a hot cup of water and followed it up with the lemon juice and dark ale. IMG_3076IMG_3073 Finally, we had to add the Templeton Rye whiskey.  Josah was flipping out about since it’s from her motherland, Iowa, and it’s also special since the recipe was born out of the crooked times of American prohibition.Rye  Nothing better than enjoying a spirit with a colorful past.  Now, we could have simply slopped it into the bowl like regular squares, but they taught us how to do the fancy “tornado pour”.  I got to do the honors because I was the only one with hands big enough to grip the bottom of the bottle.  Check me out putting the finishing touches on the punch with the tornado pour here.  After we let it sit for a bit, the staff strained it all into a large glass container, but it proved to be a bit too difficult for Joe the waiter since a quarter of it went on our table.10313748_10101613763422131_1817890989632858173_n  So, they made it up to us by hooking us up with their secret tequila infused punch and experimental pop-top bottle for punch on- the-go.  Believe me, it definitely made up for it as the tequila punch made this tequila hater into a fan.
Overall, we left very satisfied with our experience, and it was a fun and informative activity for those of you looking for something different to do in Chicago.  Not only can you enjoy a piece of Chicago history in the form of Thalia Hall, but you can learn a new skill while making new memories with friends.  I highly recommend Punch House’s punch making classes.

Dusek's on Urbanspoon

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