Ask people about the Polish restaurants in Hamtramck, and you'll hear about Polish Village Café and Polonia, but you'll seldom hear about Krakus. That's because it's about five blocks north of the Hamtramck city line, in Detroit. And it's terrific.
It's a shame that, on Saturday afternoons, people gut out a half-hour wait at PVC, while others stroll down to Polonia, often for a lesser wait, when Krakus has plenty of room, and serves essentially the same food, including some specialties, all home-made, and with a richness that will have diners nodding off in the car on the way home. Not only is the food good, but it's presented on the menu with the kind of indifferent spelling that screams authenticity. (Don't miss the specials board by the entrance.)
Of course, time has not been kind to the Detroit neighborhood. Visitors will find large vacant lots and a few ruined homes. But all that changes when you enter Krakus. It's like going back to a small private club in the 1970s. Krakus has been open since 1981, but who knows when it was last redecorated, given its wood-veneer wainscoting, drop ceilings, fake exposed beams, stained pine woodwork, and old-fashioned wallpaper. The dining room consists of a few low-tops, some joined together for larger parties, and heavy chairs upholstered with red pleather. Polish crests and a few paintings adorn the walls. Adjoining the dining room is a larger room with a stage and a floor that can accommodate tables or dancing, and beyond that is a bar area for later, when the kitchen is closed. One can imagine many a humble wedding reception taking place here over the years.
Once you're seated and marveling at the food, chances are a regular from a nearby table will lean in and single out a dish for praise. In our case, it was a longtime Hamtramck couple dining with a member of the polka band Kielbasa Kings.
Dinners come with soup or salad, and the soups are the way to go. The dill pickle is just as good as at the other, more popular Hamtramck restaurants. The mushroom soup was savory and even a bit smoky. But the best soup of all was the Ukrainian, a borscht-like soup with shredded beets. At first glance, you might suspect it's going to be watery, but the first spoonful will let you know it's a serious, peppery broth as rich as condensed French onion. It's loaded with shredded beet, green and kidney beans, making it almost more like a vegetable soup. It comes in a cup and a bowl.
Potatoes also come with each dinner, and they come boiled, mashed or as "American fries," basically potatoes cut into rounds and fried, a novelty worth a try.
Dinners come with coleslaw or sauerkraut. The slaw was a little watery at the bottom, but crisp and refreshing, not wilted and goopy; and it came in a portion that, like everything else, is about three times normal. The sauerkraut is darker and milder than many; it's not the astringent, crunchy kind that's difficult to eat. It does spice up a forkful of mashed potatoes, though.
As with Polish Village Café and Polonia, there is a Polish combination plate for $9.75 (it's $10.95 at PVC, $8.95 at Polonia). This will scratch that Polish food itch for most diners, with its two smoked sausages, two pierogies, stuffed cabbage, sauerkraut, and a giant scoop of mashed potatoes garnished with dill. It's generous enough to be split between two diners.
The potato pancakes are a hallowed specialty at Krakus. Normally, they can be sort of like a little pancake made of hash browns, but at Krakus they seem to have been given a coating of batter, endowing them with a crispier, richer crust. When a plate of them arrived at our table, a nearby party exulted that they were one of the best things on the menu. There is an almost sweet fluffiness to them, and it seems almost too much to crown them with sour cream — as if that stopped us.
Fried chicken breast, a special of the day, was prepared in a generous cutlet fashion, while the breading had an egginess to it. Not your typical poofy breading, it adhered to the chicken with a satisfying if slight crunch.
We ordered our pierogies fried (they can be boiled instead) and they seem to have been lightly crisped on a skillet. They arrived perfectly cooked and slightly redolent of oil, just a little bit thicker, chunkier, richer than elsewhere. The bacon and onion topping was almost too decadent, but they didn't stint on the fillings either: The cheese was sweet, and the meat was more substantial than we're used to.
Not every dish was a huge hit with our table. The ocean perch was three breaded fillets of perch fried until they curled up, exactly what we ordered, just not particularly subtle. The rolled beef was thin steak rolled up around onion and cabbage, an interesting combination of flavors, but not as appealing as the classics. The green beans were out of a can. Our complaints were few when stacked up against what we enjoyed.
The specials board is worth a look: The handwritten whiteboard at the entrance offered such specials as tripe soup, duck blood soup, sorrel soup, Hungarian pancakes with goulash, meatballs, even a club sandwich. Slices of cake were $2.50, and came in chocolate, coconut, fudge, and peanut butter.
Service is amazing, provided you know the drill and are patient and polite. There seems to be one woman, Agatha, patrolling the room every day, and service is straight-ahead but exceedingly competent. Your almost-full water glasses will be topped off, your dishes will be cleared away, and the orders will be correct. You are being fussed over, but you won't even realize it because it's all so unobtrusive. Expect none of the smiles and courtesies of an ingratiating server, but pay attention and you may find the occasional bone-dry joke cast your way.
Remarkably, all the food seems to be made by one woman. It's a real challenge for even the most talented short-order cook to churn out a lot of food, and, depending on how busy the place is, you may have to wait a bit. It makes Krakus a good place for a leisurely lunch, preferably followed by an afternoon nap, since the portions can be absolutely narcotizing.
On Saturday, the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. but live music takes over the small stage in the adjoining room, playing host to "authentic Polish bands."
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