Some of my fondest memories from my time in Chicago are of the Spartan, hole-in-the-wall, train-car Polish cafes in the northwest part of the city. These were Polish community gathering places centered on the almighty pierogi (soft dumplings stuffed with potatoes and cheese, or with any number of meats), kielbasa and golabki (stuffed cabbage or pepper). English speakers were perfectly welcome—though sometimes merely tolerated—but the center was always the community itself, which if you came often enough, you were allowed to join.
I hadn't expected to find anything similar in Portland, but Grandpa's Cafe, tucked demurely away at the backside of a Polish community center on North Interstate Avenue, is a warm and inviting exemplar of the form, if also an occasional one—it opens only for Friday dinners and Sunday brunch. After swinging past the sign and down a back stair into a nigh on unmarked door, you enter a downright domestic interior of hearth and paneled wood, with about 10 low tables and a little four-stool bar in the back that serves Polish beers exclusively (Zywiec and Okocim are two of the more popular).
The pierogi ($6) were a beautiful callback to the form—I prefer the kraut and mushroom ones—as were the golabki ($6, stuffed with pork, rice and onion), which I hadn't tasted in any form in Portland, and the wonderful potato pancakes ($5, served only on Fridays). Less preferred are the traditional Polish hardtack rye slabs that come with each meal. I politely buttered them, then left them alone. The menu is all rustic, family-style fare, served at prices that make it possible to sample the entire small menu for about $20.
As always, the Polish community shows up in numbers. On our way out the door on our first visit, a quite elderly Polish woman was struggling to stand from her chair. My companion asked if she could help, and was repeatedly, smilingly rebuffed. "You'll…fall…me," said the woman. She wasn't refusing out of pride or politeness, but simple untrusting self-preservation. That, precisely, is the Polish spirit (and Polish grandmother) I know and love best.
- Order this: The hefty combination plate ($10) and potato pancakes ($5) to split, plus a bottle each of zimne piwo (Polish for âcold beerâ).
- Best deal: Itâs all cheap. If you complain about a single price here, I will personally come over to your table and slap you in the face with a sausage.
- Iâll pass: The nalesniki (farmerâs cheese crepe with strawberry purÃ©e, $5) sport an earthy sweetness Iâve not yet understood.