We tend to hear a lot about families who've moved to Chicago from Warsaw and Krakow, but rarely is Lublin mentioned as a source of culinary inspiration. It's just as well. Because the family behind the Jefferson Park restaurant I'm enamored with right now, has been sticking to tradition since they opened more than 35 years ago, and the homey, comforting dishes are just about perfect for this time of year.
Renata Kaminska has an easy way with her kitchen staff, mainly because they've worked together for nearly two decades. The owner of Smakosz - a homey Jefferson Park restaurant she inherited from her father - has stuck to the classic dishes from her family's hometown in Southeastern Poland. That naturally means pierogi.
"For us, pierogi, it's a memory, heritage and family. And the pierogi we make here is like my grandmother used to make. We use unbleached flour, real eggs and our hands," Kaminska said.
But the women making them have the benefit of muscle memory, so each one has the proper thickness, surrounding just the right amount of filling before they're sealed and boiled.
"We have potato and cheese, sauerkraut and mushrooms, meat, sweet cheese. And our signature pierogi is a buckwheat, farmer's cheese and fresh mint and lentils," said Kaminska.
They're even better with some rendered bacon and a bit of sour cream. The cooks also have mastered stews, like beef stroganoff.
"We use the prime cuts of beef to make it," Kaminska said.
The beef is cooked separately from the onions, mushrooms and peppers, but they're all eventually combined and cooked slowly, until the beef falls apart. More potatoes on the side, in the form of thumb-sized handmade dumplings. It's served with the holy trinity of creamy coleslaw, bracing sauerkraut and grated, fresh beets, all made from scratch.
Potatoes and onions also star in their stellar potato pancakes - a good substitute for my homemade Hannukah latkes this year - but do make room for soup. Sauerkraut and smoky kielbasa are the stars in kapusniak.
"It's the healthiest and most flavorful soup I know. It's sharp, peppery and warming and perfect for all those cold months," Kaminska said.
And sourdough bread isn't the only thing that requires a natural starter you need to feed. So does zurek.
"Our zurek is made with a starter that was started 30 years ago by my father, and for that, we use fermented oats, rye flour and garlic," Kaminska said.
The tangy broth is jammed with hard-boiled eggs and bits of kielbasa. Personal favorite: the clear red borscht with dumplings.
"Mushroom dumplings that we also make here by hand and sometimes we also have meat dumplings," she said.
If you want to stay warm in winter, Kaminska and her staff have the cure: their cooking.
"Because it keeps you warm for all those cold, cold nights," Kaminska said.
This is exactly the kind of comforting, familiar restaurant you want to visit when things re-open. The wood paneling makes you feel like you're in someone's home, and the way they cook will absolutely transport you to someone's home in Southeastern Poland. They are also the nicest people in the world.
5619 W. Lawrence Ave.