Next to Warsaw, Chicago has the world’s second largest Polish population.
The Polonia Triangle, center of the city’s original Polish Downtown, is the Illinois city’s oldest, most prominent Polish settlement, full of local Polish shops and restaurants.
Though the years have taken their toll, the area has recently undergone a renaissance and is once again becoming a thriving business district, full of nightclubs, restaurants, and cafes.
> Where to Go:
What Podhalanka, a hole-in-the-wall former tavern, lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in Polish comfort food.
Krakow-born Helena Madej and her family have run this homey, no-frills establishment, for nearly three decades.
“Dining here is like eating in your grandmother’s kitchen, complete with pink vinyl tablecloths, plastic flower centerpieces, and Polish soap operas playing in the background,” says local writer Barbara Sanford. Polish knickknacks share the shelves behind the bar with a poster of Pope John Paul II.
> How to Order:
“If you crave your Polish mother or grandmother’s recipes—in my case my mother- and grandmother-in-law’s recipes—Podhalanka is the place to go,” says Chicago-based video editor Dan Lambert.
Start your meal with a bowl of cabbage soup or the white borscht, a creamy sausage-filled soup with fresh dill.
No Polish meal is complete without pierogi (potato and cheese, meat, or cabbage dumplings) with sour cream and caramelized onions—hearty enough for a main dish or try a small plate as an appetizer.
For your main course, order crispy potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream or go for the golabki (stuffed cabbage) with meat filling and mashed potatoes.
Then loosen your belt and keep the calories coming with sweet cheese blintzes sprinkled with confectioners sugar and served with sour cream. A glass of kompot (fruit juice) complements the meal, or bring your own bottle (there’s no corkage fee).
> Other Local Favorites:
Since 1978, Staropolska has served good Polish-American cuisine in a warm, Old Poland atmosphere with chandeliers, brick walls, a mural, fireplace, and beamed ceiling.
Bring a large appetite to Red Apple‘s (Czerwone Jabluszko’s) extensive all-you-can-eat buffet of fresh, homemade Polish specialties and dishes from around the world, including entrees, salads, and desserts.
This piece first appeared in the National Geographic book Where the Locals Go.