A surprising fact I came to learn about Detroit was the high number of Polish immigrants living in the city. As covered in the blog previously, I married into a Polish family, and largely through the annual celebration of Wigilia, I’ve discovered an entire world of food I didn’t previously know existed; or hadn’t attributed to the Poles.
Polish food is largely influenced by a lot of the Slavic and Eastern European countries that surround them; what we’d call the “meat and potatoes” diet today. Following the second world war, inexpensive meals became common place, with potato pancakes, meatballs and gravy, gnocchi, pierogi, and soups all taking center stage.
Detroit became a Polish hotbed because of the early 20th century rise of the automotive industry. When Dodge opened a plant in Hamtramck, Polish factory workers came in droves; to the point that Polish was more frequently spoken at work than English!
Even though the auto industry has largely moved on, the history remains; and Hamtramck continues to play host to a large number of city blocks made up of European bakeries, bars, and restaurants; known as Poletown. That’s when Emily and I began to ask around, looking for the restaurant that served the best, most authentic Polish cooking possible. The locals were fairly clear: visit Polish Village Cafe.
Finding the restaurant was easy. The large, colorful mural that looks over Yemans Street didn’t leave any confusion as to where we were headed. There’s a spacious parking lot for customers; but be warned… you’d better be one of them!
Thankfully, it was my wife’s car, so we were safe. Whew!
The restaurant heads downstairs into a basement setting, where you’re immediately greeted by polka music, walls upon walls of chatchkies, and a tight knit crew of Polish wait staff. We were seated immediately, and brought a bread basket of processed bread sticks, white bread, and butter.
My wife was immediately reminded of her Babcia’s house, and worked over the bread sticks as we awaited our orders. The soup arrived quickly.
I had ordered the borscht; an Eastern European specialty, primarily made up of beets, with other root vegetables added. This version was a little thicker than the borscht I’m used to, but it was rich with shredded beets, which is all I could ever ask for. Emily got the zupa ogórkowa, better known to you as dill pickle soup. This is as Polish as Polish gets, and something everyone should try at least once in their lifetime. She gave me a spoonful, and it was the most flavorful, rich version I’ve ever tried. The soup alone is worth making a return trip.
Just as we hit the bottom of our bowls, the main events showed up.
Emily’s plate featured a little of everything you’d expect in a traditional Polish kitchen. There’s a cabbage roll, smothered in a tomato soup based sauce; a hunk of kielbasa; a fried pierogi, served with sour cream; and two scoops of mashed potatoes drowning in brown gravy. She declined the kraut, because she’s a heathen.
She was very satisfied with everything on the plate. There’s nothing particularly fancy here, just basic, delicious, comfort food. It’s the kind of meal you’d expect at a Sunday family gathering, with matka making sure you had seconds because you’re getting too skinny.
The special of the day was the stuffed peppers, and I was happy to indulge. Once again, the sauce was an inoffensive tomato soup – simple, but effective, smothering spiced beef and rice, slowly cooked in a pepper. The serving was gargantuan. Two whole peppers? I’m only one man! I did my best, but by the end of the meal, I was forced to gracefully tap out. There was no way I could ever conquer this.
As we ate, I noticed plenty of patrons coming in and out; rarely staying to eat, but rather picking up large orders of food. They spoke Polish to the staff, and were treated like family. The Polish Village Cafe is clearly closely connected to the community it serves, and in turn, is the reason it’s been able to stay in business over 40 years.
The best part? You don’t need to break the bank to come here. Our meal, tip included, was under $25. The portions are generous. Had I not been traveling, I’d have had leftovers the following day. In any part of the country, that’s a heck of a deal.