Most of the year, I’m a modern Houstonian. I eat funky Mexican-Korean fusion dishes served up by earnest hipsters in brightly painted food trucks. I am one of the alt-country cognoscenti. My flatbread of choice is garlic naan. Come December, all of that is out the window. Come December, I am back in my sooty little hometown in upstate New York, back in my grandparent’s tiny house in the Avenues, where everyone is Catholic and everyone is Polish and the only music that matters is polka. All I want for Christmas, every Christmas, is a big plate of pierogis and the sound of fiddles and accordions.
1780 Blalock Rd.
For a Polish kid from upstate New York, there is only one place in Houston where December feels right: Polonia Restaurant and Deli. Run by Polish expats, Polonia takes that hole in my soul where childhood Christmases used to be and stuffs it full of golonka. And schabowy. And ga?umpki. And of course, pierogis, those potato and cheese dumplings, fried golden in butter and served smothered with onions and mushrooms, that are nothing less that savory affirmations of grandmotherly love.
Polonia is wholly, unapologetically Polish. If it can be pickled, the Poles have pickled it, usually with heroic quantities of dill, and it’s on the menu at Polonia. There are dishes that my grandfather thrived on back on the Avenues, stuff I’ve never had the courage to sample, like aspic (a gelatinous creation featuring bits of pork) and herrings in oil and blood sausage (exactly what you think it is). Those jars on the tables that appear to be filled with congealed bacon drippings? That’s pretty much what it is. Spread it on the perfectly crusty rye bread; sure it’s bad for you, but winter is here, and you need the insulation.
Next door to the restaurant, the family operates a small grocery store/deli. There are several tightly packed aisles of pickled products, Polish sweets and soft drinks, and mementoes of the motherland, including a fairly extensive selection of Polish language magazines. If you’re short on Pope John Paul II tchotchkes, this is the place for you.
You can also buy large tubs of sour cream and healthy bricks of farmer’s cheese for making your own pierogis—and if you’re not that ambitious, boxes of pre-made pierogis are in the freezer case. That amazing rye bread is on sale, and along one wall is a butcher’s case packed with a coronary-inducing array of Polish meats: there’s dried fish and cold cuts and just about every variety of kie?basa that the Polish sausage-making braintrust has invented.
It’s cold, cold enough for Houston at least, and the days have drawn short. The heady aromas of sour pickles and steamed cabbage play upon our senses as we stock up on black currant juice and op?atek, the rectangular wafers served as a sort of good luck communion to family members at Wigilia, the tradtional Christmas Eve dinner. Faintly and far in the distance, I hear my grandfather, singing Dzisiaj w Betlejem. Somewhere, accordions are playing.
The Mexican-Korean fusion can wait ‘til January.