When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was the Deerfield Fair one town over from the small southern New Hampshire town I grew up in. One of the biggest, most visited state fairs in New England, Deerfield's version contained a dizzying miscellany of foods, rides, attractions, and sights. Sure there were nauseating thrills, mirror mazes, and more petting farms than I have ever seen in my life then or since, but despite all the attractions grappling for my memories, the one that stands out most prominently is pierogi. The fair had one pierogi stand every year, and it was always the vendor we ventured to first and foremost upon entering fair grounds. Curiously, pierogi was not something my family ate that often; it was a rarity, something reserved for special occasions like gaudy state fairs evidently. So as I grew older, I tucked this doughy memory away for safekeeping. I still rarely ate pierogi, but when I did I would love it and hold it dear. Which brings me to Polak Eatery, the brick-and-mortar outpost of The Pierogi Wagon that opened in Humboldt Park, single-handedly catapulting me back down memory lane; a memory lane paved with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. And for the first time ever, I think I am ready and willing to incorporate pierogi into a steady part of my diet.
(The Polish goods at Polak Eatery)
Before opening Polak Eatery, I had never experienced the joys that is The Pierogi Wagon. Mostly because I patronize food trucks pretty much never. So when news came that a pierogi mobile was opening a standalone storefront, and one close to my apartment no less, I was stoked. Finally an excuse to eat these delightful Polish dumplings more than once a year at state fairs. But how do these dumplings stack up? Let's examine:
The menu concept at Polak Eatery is mercifully straightforward and concise, as any good pierogi-focused concept should be. With only a handful of pierogi options, customers can mix and match in increments of four or six, with optional toppings such as bacon, sour cream, and sauerkraut. The biggest faux pas when it comes to pierogi can sometimes be excess density and size, detracting from the innards and making the dumplings more about partially uncooked dough the size of a burger. Polak avoids that easy trap with their diminutive darlings, each palm-sized dumpling sporting a thin patina of dough and ample stuffing, outfitted with an even smattering of accoutrements. The exterior edges of each pierogi are slightly crackly and caramelized, lending a nice char flavor to each indulgent bite. After trying each flavor, my favorite turned out to be a bit of a surprise: the cheesy spinach pierogi tasted like gooey spinach dip on steroids, neatly folded inside a wholesome little carb pocket for maximum snackage. I aslo liked the beef pierogi, which tasted deliciously like shepherd's pie, and the cheese-packed potato version, because duh. Get 'em with all the toppings — crispy bacon bits, sauerkraut, caramelized onions, and sour cream — and customize each bite with different topping ratios, as each element lends a different texture and flavor profile. Although an expanded menu is in the works currently, the menu nowadays is limited to a few savory pierogies and some sweet ones for breakfast. There's also coffee, bottled sodas, and baked goods like brownies and face-sized oatmeal raisin cookies.
As if the starchy snacks aren't adorable enough, Polak Eatery earns bonus points for having one of the cutest interior spaces in town, not to mention charming counter service that makes you want to befriend the employees immediately. A quick glance around the tiny dining room feels like a quick jaunt through Eastern Europe via mountainous wall designs depicting castles, villages, and gorgeous vistas. Tiny wooden tables and chairs lend an air of classic-meets-contemporary, nicely juxtaposed alongside the classic-meets-mod ethos of the Polish menu.
Step aside, Deerfield Fair. I've found a new favorite pierogi memory.
- Matt Kirouac