The Measure of Kielbasa
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.
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.
Mom and I split a "combination plate for two" on that visit, a $20 smorgasbord of Polonia's greatest hits. The only real disappointment on the plate were the bland golabki, or cabbage rolls. The stuffing inside the holupki (Ruthenian cabbage rolls) made by my mother and my grandmother is mostly meat with a little rice and seasonings. Polonia's golabki were white inside, with lots of rice and very little meat. Of course, you can stuff cabbage with vegetables, buckwheat, mushrooms or any of a zillion fillings into the rolls, so I'm not doubting their authenticity. I'm just saying they weren't my favorites.
The big dumplings called pierogi were much better. They come in three varieties at Polonia, meat and sauerkraut, mushrooms and sauerkraut, and potato and cheese. The meat and sauerkraut were my favorite -- they were especially lovely when eaten beside anything that oozed thick brown gravy, like the hunter's stew called bigos, which was included on the combination plate. Bigos is made by slow-cooking meats and sausages in a sauerkraut and mushroom broth until everything melds together to form a savory and sour Eastern European gumbo.
The plate also included a link of the previously dissected kielbasa, a slice of tasty meatloaf, a round of fatty roast pork and a luscious slow-cooked duck leg, which tasted like Polish confit.
A third tablemate ordered crispy potato pancakes that came with a bowl of hearty beef goulash to use as a topping. The combination was sensational, and there was so much goulash, we ladled some over our pierogis for good measure.
Desserts at Polonia are pretty basic. There's cheesecake, apple pie and the Polish donuts called paczki. Round and filled with a tiny bit of cherry preserves, paczki will remind you of jelly donuts, but with a spongier dough.
I didn't actually eat the donuts at Polonia. I took them home and had them the next morning. Two paczki, a leftover link of podwaleska kielbasa and a mug of hot coffee make a damn fine breakfast.
Those of us with Eastern European ancestors come down with a craving for this kind of food when the weather turns cold. If you are so afflicted, I recommend you stop by Polonia and down a pile of pierogis and a couple of pilsners. Then head next door to the Polish food store where you can buy yourself a proper kielbasa.
Tell them Tenacious D sent you.
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