Franek tilts back his head and closes his eyes as he chews another ruskie pierogi. His beard is glistening with grease, and the hint of a smile comes over his deeply lined and usually stern face. There's a Polish phrase for a transcendent culinary experience like this: Niebo w gebie, "heaven in your mouth."
The four of us have already shared one plate of the little potato-and-cheese-stuffed dough pillows. They're as tender and perfectly formed as any pierogi I've ever eaten, and the topping of finely ground fried bacon is just the right accompaniment.
Franek (who prefers not to have his real name used in this article, for suitably mysterious reasons) is a native of Poland who has lived in Houston for 20 years. Fellow Eastern European food fanatics rave about Franek's pierogi parties. He makes his own pierogi at home, going to great lengths to get them right, even if it means making his own farmer's cheese to blend with the potatoes. He is equally fixated on the quality of the dough and the preciseness of the crimp. That's why I brought him to Janina's Polish restaurant with me.
"I'll tell you before we even go, the pierogi won't be any good, and I'll hate the place," he said when I first proposed this dinner. But after our shared plate of pierogi, he's changed his mind.
"Well, what do you think?" I ask.
"They are better than mine," he pronounces gravely. When it comes time to select our entrées, Franek announces that he will have another whole plate of ruskie pierogi. "And I'm not going to share them, so don't even ask," he says.
I understand his obsession. Both my mother and grandmother made potato-and-cheese-stuffed pierogi when I was a kid. My mom's family is Ruthenian, an obscure Eastern European ethnicity from the Carpathian mountains between Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. In the little Ruthenian Catholic churches of western Pennsylvania, they hold pierogi suppers every Friday night in the church halls. My aunts are among the pierogi-making volunteers, and when I go back to visit, they pull a stash out of the freezer and boil some up for me.
My family's pierogi tend to look like fried eggs with a broad half-inch crimp along one edge. I had never thought of these attributes as imperfections until I was introduced to the exacting standards of Franek's school of pierogi criticism. Proper Polish pierogi should be puffy pillows about the size of Chinese dumplings; the dough should be rolled very thin, with a tiny crimp so that the area of double thickness doesn't get too chewy, Franek argues. And by these high standards, Janina's pierogi are hard to beat.
Pierogi z miesem, or meat-filled pierogi, are also on the menu, but Franek dismisses them contemptuously. The ruskie (Russian) variety are the only kind he eats.
"Why do they call them Russian?" I wonder.
"Pierogi came to Poland from the East," Franek says. "I believe that they actually came all the way from Asia." Just as Italy got pasta from China through Marco Polo, Franek believes that the stuffed-dough concept slowly made its way across the world, acquiring local fillings as it traveled. "That's my theory, anyway," he says.
While we share the appetizer plate, Franek and I also sample the flaczki, a Polish tripe soup. I'm surprised by the tenderness of the little ear-shaped slices of tripe. "Oh, come on, it tastes like pasta or something," he chides our other dining companions, who refuse to eat the offal. The hearty brown soup is thickened with cooked onions and well seasoned with big chunks of crushed black pepper.
"This is pretty spicy for the Polish palate," Franek says. But after so many years in Texas, his tastes have changed. "At home, I would make this even spicier."
The other zupy (soups) are served in two-handled mugs; the homemade chicken is very pleasant, and the borscht is aromatic and refined. The two versions of borscht I know best are Ukrainian, with big chunks of beets and cabbage, and the elegant Russian Tea Room style, a deep red puree of beets in beef stock served with sour cream on top. But I am unfamiliar with the kind of borscht before me. Seasoned with dill, the thin beef- and-beet-flavored stock resembles a consommé. "It's clear borscht," says Franek. "You have it before dinner."
My entrée is golabki, the traditional Polish cabbage rolls stuffed with a seasoned meat-and-rice mixture. "The word means pigeon," Franek tells me. I never knew that, but it makes sense. "Pigeons," or "birds," is a common name for stuffed rolls in several cuisines, because the finished product is supposed to look like a cooked pigeon breast. My mother's family called stuffed cabbage rolls holupki, which probably means the same thing in Slovak.
The golabki at Janina's doesn't quite live up to my expectations. There's too much rice in the filling for my taste, though the rich mushroom gravy makes up for the excessive starchiness. I've learned that it's dangerous to criticize stuffed cabbage rolls. My ex-wife, who is Jewish, made a sweet-and-sour version with raisins and brown sugar that set my teeth on edge. And she found my sour Ruthenian rendition, with sauerkraut and tomato juice, absolutely abhorrent. (This wasn't the only issue in our divorce.) I've also sampled Russian, Slovak and Austrian versions; each Eastern European culture champions its own set of flavorings. The debate is pointedly parochial.
Except for Franek, who's possessive of his ruskie pierogi, we share our entrées by passing them around the table. The one that inspires the second-most plate-hogging is placki ziemniaczane po wegiersku, potato pancakes topped with Hungarian goulash. The pancakes, beautifully browned and very light, are made of a smooth potato batter. And the paprika-rich beef stew ladled on top is a wonderful change from the sour cream I'm used to eating with potato latkes. "But a Hungarian would tell you that it isn't really goulash," Franek says. "In Hungary, goulash is a soup."
While I am fond of the pancakes and goulash, the stew called bigos is my sentimental favorite. Bigos is to Poland what chili is to Texas: a combination national dish and debate topic. Originally, bigos was a hunter's stew, and it contained several meats slowly simmered with wine, cabbage, sauerkraut and sometimes mushrooms. But as wild game became harder to come by, the methods of making bigos changed.
My grandmother made the dish by simmering pork ribs in sauerkraut. When the pork was cooked, she thickened the sauerkraut sauce with a dark roux. The version at Janina's tastes a little like Grandma's sauerkraut dish made with beef stew meat instead of pork. Served over potatoes, this hearty meat, gravy and cabbage stew summons up poignant memories for me. For just a minute, the aroma transports me to Grandma's steamy kitchen on a snowy childhood afternoon.
If you're not of Eastern European descent, you might not get this emotional over the food at Janina's. But there are 50,000 Polish and Polish-Americans in Houston and plenty of Russians, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Ruthenians too, so don't be surprised if you run into some teary-eyed Eastern Europeans blubbering into their bigos.
A cute little girl with colorful ribbons in her hair is dressed in a white blouse and traditional black frock. "Look, she's wearing the Polish national costume -- with Mardi Gras beads around her neck!" my dining companion laughs. Another woman in a Polish costume walks by, but most of the crowd seems to be wearing their church clothes. It's my second visit to Janina's, and the wait is estimated at 40 minutes. I knew that Sunday was the busiest day of the week here, but I wanted to check out the scene anyway.
The cozy little restaurant is packed. Conversations in Polish are buzzing over the corny Polish pop standards on the sound system. The restaurant is located a few blocks from Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Polish Catholic church. It was in the church hall that owner Janina Martula first started cooking Polish food for the locals. She catered weddings and parties, and served special meals for the holidays. Born in Lezajsk, Poland, Martula ran a small restaurant in southern Poland before immigrating to the United States. When she first arrived, she opened a pizza parlor on Rusk Street that failed miserably. But the newly opened Janina's brings the food Martula knows best, Polish home cooking, to an appreciative audience, especially on Sundays.
The restaurant has become something of an adjunct church hall. It's the place where parishioners who drive from all over the city can catch up on the doings of the local Polish community or read the latest copy of the highly respected Texas Polka News -- all over blintzes and tea.
We have some borscht and meat-stuffed blintzes along with a breaded pork cutlet for lunch. The food is fine, but the service staff is harried and apologizes profusely to neighboring tables that weren't served promptly. Home cooking is time-consuming, and when Janina's is this busy, the kitchen gets behind and stays behind. The after-church crowd is too intent on schmoozing to care about delays. But unless you're coming here to hobnob in Polish, pick another day to visit.
If you give Janina Martula time to do her stuff, she'll put heaven in your mouth.
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