Located just down the street from the Polish Museum of America, Podhalanka is one of the most authentic Polish restaurants clamoring for attention in the city of Chicago (home to the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw). No need to worry, though. This step-back-in-time style of eatery has legions of hungry fans from all over the country filling its seats for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you start with any one of the one-dish plates (all under $5) and a bowl of soup (the mushroom is quite hearty, though a little bland), you'll be so overloaded with carbs that curling up in the bustling little kuchnia for a quick cat nap will seem like an extension of the dining experience. For the flavor these house specialties pack in, it's well worth it to order several and just take the immediate pass-out after effect (it's almost comatose) with a grain of salt and a sling back of water (it serves no liquor, though I'm certain the seasoned regulars are whippin' out the flask every bite or two).
The potato pancakes are lightly fried (in lard, no doubt) and served with an icy cold dollop of sour cream and homemade applesauce, while the potato and cheese pierogis are buttery dumplings of pure joy. Slippin' and slidin' all over the plate, they are chewy, dense, flavorful and addictive; what more could you possibly hope for when you're spending five dollars?
Customers come from all over for the borscht soup ($2.60; but it will fill you up, along with the homemade bread and butter) and though they sound delicious, beans Breton-style seem to never be available, no matter what time you roll through the door. True Polish home-style favorites like pork stew, spare ribs, rolled stuffed pork and plain ol' liver round out the cheaper-than-hell menu, and it's good to know their prices haven't inflated with the Wicker Park holier-than-thou neighborhood.
Make sure to save room for an order of cheese blintzes ($3.75) for dessert; slightly crispy around the edges, they're filled with thick farmers cheese and doused, not just sprinkled, mind you, in powdered sugar, making for a perfect treat to pack into the belly on a final go-round.
The no-frills hole-in-the-wall is quiet as a graveyard, has an awkwardly skewed, communal seating scheme going, plus street parking is a real toughie, but bar none, it's one of the best hideaways in the city.
Average cost: <$10
Centerstage Reviewer: Misty Tosh