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The Measure of Kielbasa

Real Polish sausage is a lot more exciting than the nasty Polska kielbasa they sell at the grocery store

At Polonia, the Polish restaurant on Blalock, two glistening kielbasas, topped with fried onions and scored with a knife for easy slicing, came to the table on a hot skillet. Beside them was a pile of fresh-made sauerkraut and a crock of creamy brown mustard.

The hot-grease sound effects and the too-hot-to-touch skillet made me smile. It was one of those flat, oval-shaped Mexican comals set in a wooden frame that our sizzling fajitas were served on in the 1990s. I have seen the little frying pans adapted to many culinary presentations, but this one has a special appeal. If you are looking for the iconic Houston-Polish dish, let me recommend Polonia's kielbasa and sauerkraut on a sizzling comal.

The freshly fermented sauerkraut, which contained shredded carrots, was excellent. But beyond that, the flavor of the kielbasa itself blew me away. It was nothing like the stuff sold as Polska kielbasa at the average grocery store.

Polonia's kielbasa and sauerkraut come on a sizzling Mexican comal, with a crock of mustard on the side.
Troy Fields
Polonia's kielbasa and sauerkraut come on a sizzling Mexican comal, with a crock of mustard on the side.

Location Info

Map

Polonia Restaurant

1780 Blalock
Houston, TX 77080

Category: Restaurant > Polish

Region: Outer Loop - NW

Polonia Restaurant

1780 Blalock
Houston, TX 77080

Category: Restaurant > Polish

Region: Outer Loop - NW

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays.

Sour rye soup: $3.25

Kielbasa platter: $6.90

Combination plate for two: $19.90

Potato pancakes and goulash: $10.90

Cabbage rolls: $8.90

1900 Blalock Rd., 713-464-9900.

Kielbasa (pronounced "Ke-bah-see" or "Keu-bah-sah") is the generic word for sausage in Polish. But sausage is a mainstay of Polish cuisine, and they have dozens of varieties. The kielbasa served on the comal at Polonia is a smoked pork type called podwaleska. Available at the Polish food store next door to Polonia, it is much firmer and meatier than American kielbasa. It's also much thinner.

I took some of the podwaleska sausage home in a to-go container for some breakfast research. Before I ate it all, I measured the diameter at one-and-a-quarter inches. For the sake of comparison, I went to the store and bought some Eckrich Polska kielbasa. The thick, curved link measured a honking one-and-three-quarters inches across. The watery brine that oozed out of the sausage, along with the pale color and highly emulsified texture, gave the Eckrich Polska kielbasa a sort of soggy baloney taste.

While I was paying for my sausage, the 18-year-old bagger took a look at the package and told me to check out Tenacious D's musical homage to the Polish sausage. I did, and I assume that the comedian Jack Black of Tenacious D was wishfully thinking about the oversize Eckrich diameter when he wrote the lyrics to the song "Kielbasa," which include the lines "your butt cheeks is warm...My kielbasa sausage has just got to perform."

It was the poor performance of American kielbasa sausage that inspired the founding of Polonia Restaurant. Polonia's owner, Andrzej Szpak, fell in love with a Houston woman back in 1997 and later moved here. One of our city's worst failings, in his opinion, was the kielbasa. So four and a half years ago, he found a sausage company in Chicago with better products and opened a food store off Blalock in the neighborhood near Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Polish Catholic Church. When the store did well, Szpak, who had once owned a restaurant in Poland, decided to expand his Polish food empire by opening Polonia Restaurant.


The first time we ate dinner at Polonia, a man and a woman walked in the front door, each carrying half of a woman's body. It turned out to be a mannequin that they set up on a small stage. Then they dressed the giant Barbie doll with some sort of native Polish costume. She is standing there still, gazing out over the cozy 12-table restaurant in her holiday finery.

My mother was eating with us on that first visit. Our family is of the obscure Ruthenian ethnicity. (Andy Warhol is the only famous Ruthenian I know of.) My Ruthenian grandmother emigrated from the Carpathian Mountains, not far from the part of southern Poland that Szpak's family comes from. Ruthenian food and Southern Polish food are very close.

Polonia's interior is done up in schmaltzy Eastern European style with massive wooden furniture, heavy draperies, fake tapestries and oil paintings of farm women and cherubs in ornate gilded frames. There is also the obligatory portrait of the late Polish Pope. That made my Eastern European Catholic mother very happy. She blessed herself, said grace and then she ordered a beer.

There is only one beer on tap at Polonia Restaurant, Pilsner Urquell, from the city of Pils in the Czech Republic. It is one of the best brews in the world, and the beer that all pilsners emulate. The draft Urquell at Polonia comes in your choice of a large chilled mug or an extremely large chilled mug. I got the latter.

Our order was taken by a blond, twentysomething Polish woman who told us she was a student at HCC. She serves as the restaurant's sole waitress and bartender. She was wearing a tight white T-shirt and snug fitted pants, but I held off on any comments in deference to my mom. After the blonde delivered the beer, my 73-year-old mother knocked back a big slurp, put down her mug and said, "Wow, that waitress is a knockout, huh?"

Our dinner started with soup, which is a Polish passion. I sampled a fantastic tart pickle soup, a rich shiitake mushroom soup with noodles and an unusual sour rye soup with eggs and sausage. The sour rye soup was flavored with kwas, a sour liquid made by fermenting rye bread in water. Kwas, which means "sour drink," is popular as both a sauce additive and a beverage in Slavic countries. What hot and spicy is to Mexican food, sour is to Slavic fare. Kwas, vinegar, lemon juice, sauerkraut, fermented pickles -- they just can't get enough of the puckering stuff.

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