There are true, dime-a-dozen dumps that you wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole no matter what the situation is and then there are the full-dive, holes-in-the-wall that you-would-never-knew-it-existed-unless-you-
trip-upon-it. The latter of the two is usually the secret place that's whipping up some rock-solid ethnic cuisine, where you fork over very little dough for belly-busting portions. This type of establishment is my all-time favorite and what I hunt for around every corner. Andrzej Grill is exactly that sort of find.
A few weeks ago, I was cruising down Western Avenue and literally came to a screeching halt when I saw the sign for this Polish hideaway. The sign looked like it'd been strung up decades ago, and that's usually a good thing: If the place looks like its been around the block, the grub is probably right on.
I quickly found parking and strolled into a ragtag restaurant no bigger than my bedroom. Inside: a smattering of tables, a couple of rickety bar stools, a blaring TV and a few little Polish chubs perched on the barstools, chowing on potatoes and salad. They seemed suspicious to see someone enter their "home," so I grabbed a table right away. Let's get straight to business, then, shall we kids?
Almost immediately, the owner popped her inquisitive head out of the kitchen and tore over (slo-mo, actually) with a menu. The off-skew menu was written in Polish and English, and what I wanted to say was "bring it all, love," but instead, my foodie companion and I carefully chose every single vegetarian dish on the menu.
Imagine this feast: Earthy bean and pasta shell soup with carrots, onion, bay laves and tons of black pepper; crispy potato pancakes with a scoop of thick sour cream; gnocchi-like potato dumplings with a rich, beefy mushroom sauce; soft, buttery crepes stuffed with sweet, curdy cheese and sprinkled with gobs of powdered sugar; pillowy-soft pierogis wrapped around a variety of ingredients like gooey blueberries, rich sauerkraut, sweet cheese, and thick potato puree; shaved and marinated beet salad (with a blister of horseradish) that was one of the best things I've ever tasted; creamy dilled cucumber salad; and a big fat pickle. Almost all of the dishes came with big, fat dollops of sour cream and sadly, it was all consumed (easily a pint).
When we placed the order, the look on the waitress/owner's face was pretty intense. She simply couldn't believe that I was serious and had intentions of eating all of that food. When she disappeared into the kitchen, a raucous verbal brawl let loose and I wondered if she was attempting to tell the cook that, "For real, mama, those two girls ordered all this food!"
All I know is those gigantic platters of food starting rolling out fast and furious and it was all I could do to keep my nose to the table and shove down. I didn't have time to swallow this beautiful food, much less time for domestic hoorahs. Word to the wise, though: Be prepared to take many, many to go boxes home with you.
The Final Rave: Every single dish on the menu is less than $8, so ordering haphazardly is quite fun. Oh, and if you want wine to go with your meal, it's strictly BYOB. Come early, though, doors close at 8 p.m. sharp.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Harold Washington Library
This month is Polish American Heritage Month, and on Oct. 18, Victoria Granacki will present images from her new book, "Chicago's Polish Downtown." Visit the Web site for the full list of Polish-inspired events.
Drink it: Sulzer Regional Library
Uh-oh! On Oct. 22, there will be a cooking class with Andrew Comens where participants will learn to cook all different varieties of pierogis. You could call this one a BYOB, too. This could get scary.
Eat it: White Eagle Restaurant
Though it specializes in funeral lunches (it's located right across from a cemetery), it still rocks some of the best blintzes around. Not too many, though; you'd better watch that heart of yours.
Get crazy with it: Ola's Liquors
Open at 7 a.m., this Polish liquor store-cum-bar is a haven for those ragamuffin types that must simply start their day with a long pull from a stiff one. It's a godsend, really.