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.
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.
JAM PACKED: Debby Bull is a longtime Rolling Stone contributor with a very cool life, but that didn't keep her from getting dumped by her longtime boyfriend. She was miserable, so she took to canning, and wrote a little book--Blue Jelly--about the whole ordeal. If you're feeling at all heartbroken you should read it, because it's very funny. Here's her recipe (verbatim) for Raspberry Jam:
1) Put the raspberries in a wide saucepan. If you grew the raspberries yourself, add 10 points. Work with a small amount at a time--like maybe four or five cups, and no more. Don't get in over your head. Mash the berries to get some of the juice out. Simmer for half an hour or so until the berries are really soft, stirring to keep it all from frying on the bottom. I filled up lots of free time, like when there's nothing to do but stir, thinking about how everything would've turned out perfectly and nobody would have left me if I were prettier. I tried to force myself to think about something Tina Turner had told me. "You cannot put me in the pile with the pretty ones, but I do not go in the pile with the ugly ones, either," she'd said. "And I like it here in the middle. There's a lot more freedom." Meanwhile, sterilize the jars for 10 minutes in boiling water. Leave them in the hot water till you're ready to use them. In a little saucepan, bring water to a boil over the lids and rings, and turn off the heat.
2) Measure the berry mush. This makes a mess, but you have to do it, even if it means measuring it out into a bowl and then dumping it back into the saucepan. I mean, that you now have an extra bowl to wash is probably the least of your problems. Add an equal amount of sugar to the berries back in the pan.
3) Boil the sugar and raspberries together, stirring well, until the syrup is really sticky and thick, which will probably be about 20 minutes. Skim off any foamy scum on the top. Throw out the scum. If you follow no other instruction, do this one. Fill the dry, hot jars with the jam, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace...
4) Wipe the jar rims with the tip of a towel dipped in the boiling water. Place the hot lids on the jars and screw the rings on firmly. Process in the boiling-water canner for 10 minutes.
PIEROGIES, FAMILY STYLE: The cheapest place for them is the Ukrainian Center (301 N.E. Main St., Mpls.; 379-1956), where for $5.95 there are all-you-can-eat Friday lunches, including potato-filled pierogies, stuffed cabbage, fresh, crunchy borscht, and some other changing entrées like goulash, beef stroganoff, or sweet-and-sour chicken, plus kolachis, cake, and coffee, lemonade, or ice tea. The meal is served in a big charming gym-like area, the ceiling is draped with garlands of flowers, the waitresses are the most friendly and helpful that I've encountered anywhere that a buffet is involved, and the feeling is small-town and church-friendly. While the food isn't as subtle or tasty as that of Kramarczuk, if you've got a family with bottomless stomachs (kids eat for $3.95) and a yen for a homey experience, this could be the perfect place.
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