Why are pierogi so great? First off, they're stuffed with all of our favorite ingredients (meat, potatoes, cheese, fruit). Second, they're (traditionally) topped with melted butter and indulgent bits of crispy bacon. Third, they're boiled, so we can feel better about the fact that they’re covered in melted butter and bacon. And finally, they're bite-size (OK, sometimes they're two bites) so we can eat an entire plateful at each of these popular Polish restaurants.
Taste of Chicago fans have likely stopped by this ethnic staple several times, as Kasia Bober has held court at the culinary fest for years now. Fortunately for us, her award-winning pierogi aren't just a summertime treat, but are available year-round at her deli, located in Ukrainian Village. Kasia's popular Polish dumplings are also available by the case at select local markets, but the pre-packaged goods just don't cut it. You've got to get these things hot and fresh, from the lady herself. Stuffing choices include the usual suspects like potato-cheese (or just plain ol' cheese), potato-onion, sauerkraut-mushroom and meat, along with a few Americanized versions, like spinach.
Red Apple (Czerwone Jabluszko)
Czerwone Jabluszko, or the Red Apple, as it's more commonly referred to, offers a myriad of Polish favorites, served buffet-style. Typically we shy away from the all-you-can-eat extravaganzas, but there's something strikingly different—and intensely authentic—about this one. First off, it's unbeatable for those on a tight budget, with prices ranging from $9.49 (for lunch) to $10.95 (weekends). Second, each trip is like a surprise, with Red Apple's ever-changing menu, featuring everything from beef stew and roasted duck to Polish burgers and stuffed cabbage. No doubt, it's easy to get carried away with plate piling at Red Apple, especially when you reach the pierogi. The predictable fillings (potato-cheese and meat) couldn't be more pleasing, while the fruit-stuffed variations (we like the strawberry) make you realize that it is possible for a good thing to get even better. Assuming you haven't spent your entire appetite on pierogi (though we've been known to do exactly that) be sure to check out the restaurant's other rib-sticking staples, including cheese blintzes, borscht and potato pancakes. And before you think about hijacking some extra pierogi for later, consider Red Apple's take-out option (sold by the pound).
Paul Zakopane Harnas
There's just no sense in going to this Polish diner without ordering up a plate of its handmade pierogi. That's not to say that the restaurant's other dishes aren't worthy of praise—especially the mushroom soup, Polish sausage and potato pancakes—but seriously folks, this is a pierogi fest, not a pancake party or a sausage soiree. Personally, we think the beef pierogi are where it's at, however, the vegetarian options are damn good, too. Perhaps it's the fact that they’re all served in the same, self-indulgent manner: soaked in melted pools of butter. You can opt for bacon toppings and a side of sour cream, as well, just be prepared for a trip to the cardiologist when all is said and done.
Szalas offers a perfect environment for enjoying pierogi.
The owners couldn't have picked a better name (Szalas translates to Chalet) for this South Side restaurant. With its lodge-like atmosphere, from the log-laid exterior to the highlander-infused decor, Szalas is a literal interpretation of Poland's Podhale region. The restaurant itself doubles as a museum of sorts, telling the story of Podhale's culture through a series of intricate photographs and authentic artifacts. Step into the dining room and all eyes fall immediately to the water-driven rotating mill wheel, followed by the massive fireplace (think rustic meets romantic). The menu itself lives up to its regionally inspired surroundings, with traditionally prepared platefuls of what can only be described as mountain food (read: heaps of meat, cabbage and potatoes). With so many tempting choices, it's almost a danger to start with a plateful of Szalas pierogi (stuffed with everything from mushroom and sauerkraut to cheese and potato), but this is one risk we're willing to take.
The potato and cheese pierogis at this Wicker Park spot (just a few blocks from the Polish Museum of America) are buttery dumplings of pure joy. Slippin' and slidin' all over the plate, they are chewy, dense, flavorful and addictive. And at just five bucks for a gut-busting order, you'll have plenty of cash left to sample the rest of the menu, including much-lauded borscht, pork stew, potato pancakes and cheese blintzes. Podhalanka does take-out, but for the real experience, you'll want to sit at one of the tables (there always seem to be plenty of seats) and listen to the owner discuss the day with her regulars in their native language.