The Perfect Place to Meat

Kramarczuk East European Deli

215 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 379-3018

Pierogies remind me of Peter Lorre; they're plump, compact, and unglamorous; they thrive in the least promising environments; and wherever they are, be it glamorous Hollywood, decadent Berlin, or a big pile of sour cream, they maintain their essential lumpy, foreign, resilient character.

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Kramarczuk East European Deli

215 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55413

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Northeast Minneapolis

There are, of course, differences. Pierogies never appeared in a musical with Fred Astaire, and you'd be hard-pressed to find Peter Lorre in Northeast Minneapolis, though the pierogies are flying fast and furious. My absolute favorite ones, even taking into account those sold by cute old ladies from Northeast church basements, are those from Kramarczuk, even though they call them varenyky. These are pierogies with a firm, slightly chewy exterior, and whether you choose ones with a meat, cheese and potato, or sauerkraut filling, they're all perfectly seasoned and yummy, and come with an absolutely simple, utterly delicious sour cream horseradish sauce (eight pierogies cost $3.95).

Yet just like when Peter Lorre walks into the background of a scene, these pierogies can cause real problems. You stand there, in front of the gleaming glass case, and wrestle with the knowledge that Kramarczuk also makes the best Eastern European sausages in town. Then you factor in that their goulash ($4.99) achieves the perfect goulashy pinnacle of creaminess, meatiness, and pungency; that their Ukrainian meatballs ($4.99) are excellent comfort food, served in a pool of sour cream tomato sauce. And, to complicate matters further, the Nalesnyky ($4.65) are soothing and tasty--they're like Ukrainian enchiladas, crepes filled with meat smothered with mild Swiss cheese and served with that great sour cream horseradish sauce. So you stand there, in front of the gleaming glass case with your tray, like Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, pulled in a dozen directions, completely unsure where happiness lies.

You might go for the combination plate ($6.35), containing one sausage of your choice (the fine, slightly garlicky Ukrainian sausage? the sweeter reddish Polish? the hearty bratwurst? the fennel-and-pepper-laced Italian?), plus three pierogies, but then you'll get stuck with the bland, underspiced holubets, a plump cabbage roll filled with meat and rice. (Also avoid the Italian sausage in tomato sauce and peppers. It always tastes like too much citric acid, as though it's fresh out of the can. But then, if you're the sort of person who goes to a Ukrainian restaurant and orders Italian you're probably not the kind of person who heeds warnings.) Alas, combination plates rarely leave room for the wonderful borscht ($2.45), which is as fresh, crisp, sour, and flavorful as a summer-style borscht gets; or the Napoleons ($1.85), which are filled with real vanilla custard and are terrific.

I guess the best strategy is to go to Kramarczuk with a boatload of friends, get everything, and share. This prospect is made easier by Kramarczuk's newly expanded hours (8-8 Tuesdays through Saturdays), summer sidewalk seating, and new beer and wine options. It's not just any beer either, but one of 11 classy imports, like Polish Zywiec, Austrian Gösser, or Czech Crystal, all for $3. For the month of June, if you buy a beer or glass of wine after 4:00 you can get a brat with kraut for a mere 49 cents. As far as I'm concerned, top-flight brats and top-flight beer in the summer sun are about as good as summer gets--or, as Peter Lorre said to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon: "I sincerely expect the greatest mutual benefit from our association."

Actually, the connection between Kramarczuk and classic thrillers isn't as tenuous as it might seem. When I spoke to Orest Kramarczuk recently, he told me about the restaurant's dramatic genesis 42 years ago: "During World War II, my parents' Ukrainian village had been under communist rule, and then was overrun by the Nazis. Near the end of the war the Russians were advancing against the Germans, and my parents escaped through the front lines of fighting to the west. They just got in their wagon with nothing but their recipes, their memories, and a will to make it in America." Anna and Wasyl Kramarczuk spent four years in Austria, where Wasyl learned the German art of sausage making, and eventually they opened the Northeast butcher shop that would grow into the restaurant we know today. Wasyl taught his recipes and techniques to Walter Gorden, Kramarczuk's current sausage master. Orest explains that the way Gorden makes sausage is "a lost art, because we make sausages the European way, in that the various cuts of meat are used to bring out the flavor. We don't rely on spices for flavor--it's time consuming, and you've really got to understand meat and what flavors the different cuts of meat have."

Today some Kramarczuk sausages, like the pork Krakowska, draw gourmet orders from all over the country, and if you pop in on an average Friday afternoon the place is packed with retirees in khakis, kids in leather, and the occasional couple like the one I saw a few weeks ago. They were decked out in the priciest of duds, she was wearing ultraglamorous sunglasses, and they were sharing enough food to feed a village. Eating their pierogies and sausages with utter dedication and gusto, they clearly couldn't give two figs about onion breath or fat grams, no matter how glamorous their duds were, and they just seemed to be such nuggets of character that they reminded me of pierogies too.

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