Did you know that Chicago has the most Polish residents after Warsaw? Yeah, me neither. From the immigration of the 1890s called Za Chlebem, or For Bread, to the “Solidarity” wave of the 1980s, the Polish have called Chicago home for more than 150 years. So when I told Anna I was going to disturb her otherwise quiet work week by flying in to her city for three days to eat and kill time before I was scheduled to start a new job, Polish food was her first suggestion. I obviously wasn’t escaping New York’s cold weather by going to the midwest, so I thought a warm and comforting Eastern European fare was just perfect.
I have no idea where I am when I sit on the passenger seat of a car, but I remember when Anna pointed to the gray DMV building next to the road she was driving on. The neighborhood itself looked like something from Winogrand’s photo archives as if it was frozen in time; the leafless trees didn’t make it less dreary. Smak Tak gave off the same feeling. It was empty when we walked in because the busy lunch hour just finished and it looked like a cabin that has never experienced business since it opened: it was spotless and lifeless.
The food was the complete opposite. Even though Anna and I were the only two people eating, the kitchen still whipped up some dishes that were good and delicious enough for a big party. We started with a bowl of white borscht with a faint hint of dill. An assorted plate of pierogis came next with the savory (cheese and potato, sauerkraut and mushrooms, even tuna) and the sweet stuffings (syruped berries and cherries).
I tried to slow down on the heavy dumplings because I wanted to save myself for the main attraction: good ol’ hunter’s stew of shredded cabbage, veal meat, potatoes and sausages. Winter food couldn’t get any better than that. It was full of depth and flavor and it went down like a very warm fuzzy blanket. If I could cuddle with that bowl of stew, I would. If I had to hunt a big animal with all my strength, it was all I needed to do the job right. We came out of Smak Tak fortified and ready for Chicago’s wind and chills and I was a little glad that lunch didn’t come with any frills.
Smak Tak is at 5961 North Elston Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. They are open seven days a week from 11 to 9.