Chicago's Podhalanka: A Small Business to Write Home About
"Which one of you is Polish?" the owner asked in a heavy accent.
"No one. We're both Southerners," we replied bashfully.
He took away our menus. "First time?"
My friend and I nodded.
"Don't worry. I'll bring you what you want. The menu will only confuse you."
First, he served us bread, then two unique soups, both rich in flavor and surprisingly hearty, which were especially welcome on a cold and rainy Chicago afternoon. Next came the stuffed cabbage & potatoes in a zingy, delectable sauce, and then hot potato pancakes with a deliciously creamy interior protected by a crisp fried shell. Then came blintzes - rolled up crepes filled with warm farmer's cheese. "Eat these quick," he said. "They're best hot." (He was right.) Finally came the pierogis, and some of the best smoked sausage I've ever had outside of Louisiana. And of course, each dish was accompanied by a healthy serving of apple sauce and sour cream, as Polish tradition dictates.
As my friend and I continued to eat dish after dish, unable to stop ourselves (it was all so delicious), the conversation between us and our host was flowing, right along with the mysterious yet pleasing Polish juice served with our meal. "We make it fresh every day," the owner said.
And that's the best way to describe a place like Podhalanka: fresh and surprising.
Over the years, I've walked past the unassuming storefront at least a hundred times, completely unaware of the delicious treasures being lovingly handcrafted inside. But now that I've visited this old school Polish restaurant directly across from the Blue Line's Division stop, and experienced for myself the wide range of delicacies this family dive has to offer, I can't seem to get it out of my mind.
The service was exceptional, led by Greg Jamka, the co-owner who hosted our unforgettable experience. He told us stories of his native Poland, and nearly had us sold on catching the next flight to Warsaw from O'Hare. But more than that, he was eager to share stories about his travels throughout Cajun Country and all of his experiences with my home's culture and cuisine (his wife is a Louisiana native too, as it turns out). That was a real treat for me, anyway.
But the remarkable food and welcoming environment aside, what makes Podhalanka special is its stubborn determination to remain homemade and unique in the rapidly gentrifying Wicker Park neighborhood, where it seems new restaurant chains are popping up every day. Yet, while Umami Burger and Taco Bell may have their neon lights & modern storefronts, there is something to be said for those who focus on doing the simple things well. Things like tradition, family, and storytelling.
Podhalanka makes you realize that the things that unite us don't have to be fancy or expensive or even flashy...just honest-to-god good, simple food done well, along with an open invitation for anyone interested in experiencing our heritage and culture as an extension of ourselves.
And, in our opinion, that's what small business should be about.