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November 22, 2009

Smak-Tak

Polish Sausage Dominic Armato

Since my Chicago-related culinary shames seem to be a bit of a theme lately, I thought I'd address another. It's often stated that Chicago is home to more Poles than any other city in the world with the exception of Warsaw. This has always struck me as a dubious claim, but true or not, the meme's longevity is undoubtedly due to the fact that there is one heckuva massive Polish population in Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago. I didn't leave town until I was 18, and then I tacked on six more years after returning from the West Coast.

And yet, until this time last year, I'd never eaten in a Polish restaurant.

Don't ask. I have no idea how it happened. I couldn't be more embarrassed by it, but there it is. Then, while sitting around in Baltimore, I start reading all about Smak-Tak, an LTH darling (and now Great Neighborhood Restaurant) that's looking kind of swoon-worthy. I could handle the shame no longer. So last December, on New Year's Eve Eve, I stopped in for a meat and potatoes feast that absolutely rocked. It rocked so much that I had to add an 11th honorable mention to my Deliciousness of 2008, which I'd already written thinking that I was in the clear on the evening of December 29th. Except my photos were terrible. So I vowed to return to eat and shoot again, and that opportunity finally presented itself last month.

Mushroom SoupDominic Armato

Elston Avenue, one of the lesser-appreciated of Chicago's radial streets, goes a lot further out than most people think. Almost to Superdawg, in fact. And it's almost near Elston's terminus, in Jefferson park, where Smak-Tak is located. It's a little storefront that has almost kind of a ski chalet meets country kitchen vibe, with light wood paneling, vinyl placemats with old-timey illustrations of fruit, a rather grand fireplace and hordes of decorations appropriate to the nearest holiday. Well, and the massive Coca-Cola emblazoned cooler in the corner from which you can just grab your beverage of choice. It's a casual joint. A really warm, friendly joint. And the look of the place couldn't be more appropriate for what comes out of the kitchen, which makes you rethink using "meat and potatoes" as a pejorative.

Beet BorschtDominic Armato

In case the opening didn't make it clear, I don't know my Polish food at all. I mean, I'm familiar with the broad strokes. I've had pierogi here and there, sampled some sausages... I'm down with the sauerkraut. I certainly don't know the finer points. But you don't have to know your Polish to know a good soup, and every soup I've tasted at Smak-Tak has been a joy. There's something really honest about soup, warm and comforting, but good soup is so hard to come by. It's always based on a lousy stock, complicated with muddy flavors, creamed into oblivion. But here, they're simple and clean and delicious. The mushroom soup isn't a mélange of exotic mushrooms. It seems like it could have been made with the button variety. But it's full of flavor, really nice, and based on a clean, delicious stock. I'm a sucker for beet borscht, and Smak-Tak has one of my favorite iterations. It isn't overly sweet -- more slightly sour than anything -- but very simple, tasting like the fresh vegetable with a aromatic hit of fresh dill. A soup that blew my mind a little bit was the cucumber soup, which is really something special. Cucumber soup, to me, is something served cold. Not so here. Though it's billed as "cucumber soup", it's actually a Polish pickle soup, made with a beef stock and shredded dill pickles, carrot, celery and potato, a bit of sour cream and fresh dill to finish. It wasn't my soup last December, and if I'd had more than a spoonful, it would've made the Deliciousness of 2008 rather than the pierogi. I had a hard time pulling the trigger on one bite, but the fact that I thought about it hopefully says something. I couldn't wait to have a bowl of my own on this pass. Sadly, it wasn't on the menu this time around. But it's one of the best soups I've had in recent memory. When it comes to restaurants with so much good stuff, I always hesitate to label anything a must-have, but I'll do so here. If it's on the menu, get it.

PierogiDominic Armato

Naturally, pierogi can be found in abundance, and this was the dish that actually did snare my honorable mention last year. Maybe I've just never had good pierogi, I don't know. It wouldn't surprise me. My pierogi experience isn't exactly extensive. But these were a real eye-opener for me, a far cry from the dense, leaden lumps to which I'm accustomed. Make no mistake, this is a dough, not a wrapper. But despite its body, it's light and delicious and easy to consume in mass quantity. I enjoyed the sweet pierogi, even if I couldn't get excited about them. There were a number of fruit fillings, not overly sweet, kind of tart, actually, but I could take them or leave them. The savory ones, however, were incredibly good, drowning in butter and served with fresh sour cream. There were potato and cheese pierogi, a finely ground and lightly seasoned meat version, and a sauerkraut and mushroom -- probably my favorite of the three -- that was surprisingly mellow for a sauerkraut concoction. This much food probably shouldn't disappear as quickly as it did. But while I never quite understood the devotion before, now I get it. These are some dynamite dumplings.

Hungarian Style PancakeDominic Armato

Less flashy, though perfectly enjoyable, was the "Grilled Sausage in Old Polish Style," which was as notable for its perfect preparation as for its flavor. Looking at the photo, you can see... carefully scored, beautifully browned, taken right to the edge of being crisped too much... seems a small detail, but it made it particularly nice. Served with potatoes and a huge pile of sauerkraut, it's a very enjoyable dish that I hesitate to recommend only because there are so many other routes I'd go first. I felt similarly about the potato pancakes, which would have been notably good anywhere else, but got lost among other killer dishes. The stuffed cabbage rolls, too, were tasty if not a standout dish. Slathered in a light tomatoey sauce and filled with a moist, finely ground meat filling, they were surprisingly delicate. Undoubtedly good, but not an attention-grabber for me in this company. There's no denying the comfort factor, even if they didn't rock me.

Stuffed Cabbage RollsDominic Armato

Dishes that did rock me, and in no small measure, started with the Hungarian Style Pancake. It starts out as a massive plate-sized potato pancake which is then folded over a rich, meaty goulash before being trimmed with an obscene amount of sour cream. This is just hearty upon hearty upon hearty, but what sets it apart from typically clumsy meat and potatoes dishes is the incredible amount of care that typifies everything I've had at Smak-Tak. It starts with that thick potato pancake that's moist and buttery, but has been griddled to a perfect crisp, particularly along the edges. The goulash is wonderful, with a deep but clean flavor that makes it feel more sophisticated than a simple meat stew, and the sour cream is light and fresh. On my first visit, this was almost my favorite of the entrees, eclipsed only by a regular special that happened to be on the menu that day.

Hunter StewDominic Armato

If you have even the slightest love in your heart for liver and onions, the chicken liver and onion special is another absolute must, and the fact that it's a regular special that appears 3-4 times a week is a very good thing. My father, whose dish I tasted on the first pass, is a big sucker for liver and onions, and though it killed me to stop at two bites, I figured I'd better, lest I end up having to extract his fork from the back of my hand. They're a killer blend of tender and crispy, served mostly whole, having broken down a bit in the pan, with crisped edges that add a ton of texture. They're cooked and mixed up with strands of sweet, caramelized onion that are left with just enough body to, again, help maintain some texture in a dish that wouldn't otherwise have a lot of it. Though I've had some pretty stellar calf's liver with onions in Venice, where it's one of the city's signature dishes, I feel pretty comfortable calling this the best instance of chicken liver and onions I've ever tasted. This is definitely one of those litmus test dishes. If you don't like Smak-Tak's liver and onions, it just isn't your thing.

Potato PancakesDominic Armato

Rounding out the favorites was a dish that I've now had twice and am still trying to get my head around a little bit, partly because it wasn't at all what I expected. Perhaps I bring too much baggage to the term "stew", but I think of a wet and meaty concoction that could be consumed with a fork, but which probably requires a spoon for all of the juicy, saucy stuff. The hunter stew, however, isn't the least bit saucy. It arrives as a huge pile of cabbage, seasoned and cooked with small chunks of diced veal, sausage and potato. It almost has a bit of a sauerkraut vibe, but just barely. There's some sourness, but this isn't a pungent dish. Rather, it comes across as smoky and deeply flavored, more of a bold vegetable dish with meat than a meat dish (though the meat is present, and in abundance). It was unexpected, unlike any dish I'd previously tasted, and I found it very, very compelling.

If you're just looking at the photos, you don't need me to tell you that this is big, hearty, meaty fare that's served in quantity. But big and meaty is so often abused that it's surprising to come across a restaurant that produces this kind of food with such skill and care, balancing flavors, paying careful attention to textures, and even bringing a surprisingly delicate touch to dishes that, on the whole, are anything but. I'd read all about Smak-Tak before trying it. I expected it to be good. And yet, I was still surprised by just how good it was. I was a little troubled by the fact that on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, ours was the only table occupied. I was more troubled when multiple reports of similarly empty dining rooms emerged recently. I can see why people might look at the menu and wonder why they need to travel across town for this. I know that if I'd seen it online without hearing what I did, I never would have given Smak-Tak a second thought. So if you check out their menu and think the same, I urge you, please, get in there. It's a special little restaurant, and it'd be a damn shame if it doesn't survive.

Smak-Tak
www.smaktak.com
5961 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60646
773-763-1123
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 9:00 PM

Comments

I assume that the "hunter stew" you describe here is bigos, my favorite Polish dish. It's a little like kosheri with Egyptians or minestrone in Italy -- there are many variations in prep, and even in ingredients. Most of the time I've had bigos in the U.S., it has included sauerkraut rather than cabbage, or a mix of both.

Next time in Chicago, I've got to hit Smak-Tak. I've heard of nothing but good things about it.

I think it was, indeed, sauerkraut, if a fairly mellow one, as with many of their other dishes. I just meant cabbage as a base vegetable. It certainly wasn't fresh cabbage, if that's what you mean.

I drug my Polish-food loving husband up there about a year ago after reading about it here and on LTH. He was excited that I was suggesting a Polish restaurant rather than him dragging me along to one. I thought it was delightful. However, while the husband thought it was good, he didn't think it was that much better than the many Polish joints within a few blocks of our house. So I haven't been able to make the drive up back there. (Except for regular trips to Superdawg.)

I think the main appeal is for those of us who can take or leave Polish food; we'd be converts if it were all like this.

Hey Dom,

From one fellow photographer to another... I like reading your food reviews, but I do have one criticism, and it's that you seem to fall into the Dutch Angle trap. Having to tilt my head every which way gets a bit disorienting. There's other ways to make the food look interesting than to make it appear to fall off the table. I understand the situation on which you are taking these photographs, but you might want to consider not going so off-kilter with your leveling.

Keep up the good work...

"From one fellow photographer to another... I like reading your food reviews, but I do have one criticism, and it's that you seem to fall into the Dutch Angle trap."

I know :-/

I've found myself falling into that as a matter of habit. Though believe it or not, it's not an attempt to generate interest... it's just that plates tend to fit so well across that diagonal. Anyway, I'm attempting to (mostly) break myself of it... unsuccessfully on this particular day :-)

Hey, Kat...

If you're uncomfortable pegging the location of your home within a few block radius and you choose to ignore this question, I won't hold it against you in the slightest :-)

But I'm curious... which local joints is your husband a fan of?

The reference (albeit it fleeting) to dill pickle soup made me smile. Always one of my favorite dishes, if for no other reason than the oddity of it, but so rare to find a good Polish restaurant that does it well (outside of Chicago, of course).

Mmmm, I made hunter's stew a couple of weeks ago. My Polish grandmother taught my mother all her best dishes, then mom taught me some of it. I still can't duplicate her pierogi dough. The stew I make uses sauerkraut. In fact ours, unlike others' recipes I've seen, uses no cabbage. Grandma rinsed it ' thoroughly before using it, so it had a very mild flavor. But then, she and mom made their own kraut so they could really control it. I've never found any from a store that matched it for taste and texture. Then I used some of my dad's homemade smoked kielbasa, some pork ribs, and a couple of smoked hocks. It was tasty.

No problem, I'll reveal clues to my location. Paul Zakopane and Staropolska (on Milwaukee) are his favorites. For a few years, we frequented the Red Apple smorgasbord, which is known by our children as "the pudding restaurant". The food there is OK, but the appeal to the kids and not having to wait for table service pushed it to the top. Luckily they are beginning to outgrow the lowest-common-denominator palate and develop an actual taste for food and the patience to wait for it, which has opened up our dining possibilities.

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