Down in the dumplings

We hit the city's best spots for Polish potato pockets with a two-time pierogi eating–contest champ.
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Photograph: Brendan Lekan Steve Zavesky
By Michael Nagrant Photographs by Brendan Lekan |
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Blame it on my babcia (Polish for “grandmother”). Every addiction begins with a gateway, and my culinary marijuana to ethnic comfort food was my babcia’s pierogi, moon-shaped dumplings of potato and cheese pan-seared in a lake of scalding butter and topped with a porky hash of caramelized onion and bacon.

While the family recipe still exists, the true execution of it died with my babcia, and ever since I’ve been hunting for a replacement. To help me find Chicago’s best pierogi, I enlisted Steve Zavesky, a third-generation Whiting, Indiana, native and a two-time pierogi eating–contest champion at Whiting’s Pierogi Festival (Friday 27 through Sunday 29). We hit eight spots in five hours (Zavesky polished off 27 dumplings during the search), always ordering potato and cheese for the control.

The best
Smak-Tak
5961 N Elston Ave, 773-763-1123
Sporting wall-to-wall knotty pine and an LCD flat screen tuned to the Polish weather channel, this spot is the epitome of Polish Highlander chic.
Steve Zavesky “These are dripping in butter. This is as close to my mom’s as any we’ve tried.”
Michael Nagrant  “They stole my babcia’s recipe. You can taste onion and garlic in the filling.”

Runners-up
Kasia’s
2101 W Chicago Ave, 773-486-6163
This retail outlet is an old Polish family deli. But don’t let the modest decor fool you: With national grocery-store chains carrying its pierogi, Kasia’s is the McDonald’s of doughy dumplings.
SZ “They don’t taste frozen. I like the onion on top—gives it a nice flavor.”    
MN “The dumpling is tender, like they poached them in butter for hours.” 

Pierogi Factory
1034 W Belmont Ave, 773-325-1015
Decked out with glowing pendant lamps, neon-green walls and modern wooden tables, this Lakeview pierogi emporium ain’t your dziadzia’s (“grandfather’s”) dumpling house. 
SZ “This cheddar is great, and the deep-fry is unique. ”
MN “Nice sharp tang on the cheddar. The deep-fry makes this a must.”

The rest
Lutnia
5532 W Belmont Ave, 773-282-5335
The front room’s cruise ship–like portholes give way to a strip joint’s worth of gold poles, giving it the feel of a Liberace-decorated restaurant.SZ “The crunchy crust is nice.”  
MN “These pierogi are superpeppery. I like the caramelized crunch on the outside.”

Zascianek Restaurant
5752 W Belmont Ave, 773-282-5296
This Northwest Side spot caters to hardworking Poles with dishes like the carbtastic “contractor’s special.”
SZ “These are pretty good. There’s an onion flavor to the filling.”
MN “This is kind of like a character-actor pierogi. I’d be pretty happy with it, if it were the only one we had today, but it doesn’t stand out.” 

Andrzej Grill
1022 N Western Ave, 773-489-3566
This dingy storefront decked out with nonworking video-poker machines looks like a front for the Polish mafia. While we were there, a man walked through the restaurant to a waiting pickup truck holding something wrapped in a blanket.
SZ “The dough’s chewy but the cheese is really creamy.”
MN “I don’t like the texture. It’s kind of like a gut bomb.”

Podhalanka
1549 W Division St, 773-486-6655
With its red vinyl stools, plastic tablecloths and assorted bric-a-brac, this place looks like some old Polish lady’s basement speakeasy. The seasoned (and soured) servers add to that feeling.
SZ “Man, these take a long time. The filling is really dry, and the dough is kind of gluey.”
MN “I think they made the pierogi from scratch—that’s why it takes so long. But there’s absolutely no seasoning in either of these, and the dough is chewy.”

Halina’s Polish Delights
5914 W Lawrence Ave, 773-205-0256
Like Podhalanka, this place definitely has an old-lady feel to it, but with frilly cotton tablecloths and bouquets of fresh tulips, this would be a richer, more tasteful granny.
SZ “The potato are kind of velvety, and the filling is well seasoned.”
MN “I really like the snap of this dough. The potato is pureed and I think there’s some garlic in here”

For more information on this weekend’s Pierogi Fest, see Around Town.

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