I didn't grow up in pierogi country, but I have friends from western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio who did. Since many of those friends live in Clintonville now, the semi-recent opening of Babushka's Kitchen in the Beechwold area had them overheated with kielbasa fever.
This piqued my interest in the two local Polish food outlets I know about - Babushka's (which all those aforementioned friends declared was the real deal) and Hubert's Polish Kitchen in the North Market (which many of those friends admitted to not having tried).
The setting: Like a big meeting hall split into three rather plain dining spaces named after different Polish cities (Krakow, Warsaw). It's a little kitschy-touristy in there and unrelentingly upbeat polka music plays non-stop.
The food: Looks and tastes just like Cleveland church basement cuisine - this is in no way a knock. The local Babushka's Kitchen is a little sister of a famous "as seen on TV" Cleveland eatery, and lots of the Clintonville shop's stuff comes from the Cleveland home office.
Noteworthy dishes: The Hunter's Feast ($16) subtitled "Polish house sampler" is built for two (at least!) and is a hog-tastic way to acquaint yourself with this place.
It came loaded with most everything Babushka's makes, such as:
• A huge cabbage roll - real good, with a tender veggie sheath, a dense log of meatloafy rice and beef, plus a rich, homey tomato sauce
• Smoked kielbasa - salty, not super smoky, not fatty tasting, some black peppercorn flavor
• Roast pork - a highlight of my platter, it was moist and tender with a lot of piggy flavor
• Roasted sauerkraut and homemade dumplings - sort of unthrilling gnocchi-like pasta stubs flavored by sweetened kraut
• A jumbo potato and cheddar pierogi - a winner, buttery and attractively browned, filled with a big pouch of cheese and mashed potato
• Two sides, such as mashed potatoes (not homemade) and green beans (forgettable) and old-school cabbage and noodles (go with these).
For a bite of something sweet, try the kolachky cookies filled with jammy fruit - they're a delicate, flaky and grandmotherly treat.
Hubert's Polish Kitchen
The setting: A good-sized counter operation stationed in the bustling North Market. Hubert's wide array of authentic Polish selections is dished up cafeteria-style.
The food: Great tasting, generally hearty and full-flavored Polish fare prepared (mostly) by a pair of Polish brothers. Using as many high-quality North Market ingredients as possible and relying on old family recipes, Hubert's totally scratch-made food includes lots of soupy and stewy stuff plus plenty of interesting, colorful and healthyish vegetable salads (items are around $4-$6 apiece, or available in combos for $8-$10).
Noteworthy dishes: The deep-fried, softball-sized cheesy and meaty sauerkraut balls called Mielone are thoroughly addictive, real must-haves (but ask for the winglike hot sauce on the side). Still, I was highly impressed with everything I tried, such as:
• Leczo - veggies, sausage, shredded beef and roasted red peppers in a tomato soup base
• (Killer) kielbasa - made by Falter's using Hubert's special recipe, they've got a great snappy casing and are garlicky, black peppery and super juicy
• Pierogi - sturdy, kinda thick homemade pasta pockets filled with a slightly sweet cheese-potato mix and submerged into melted butter
• Cabbage rolls - mild, stuffed with a loose rice and ground meat mixture
• Mashed potatoes - homey and wonderful; and cauliflower salad - fresh, mayo-based but light and fresh-tasting.
For more local food news and reviews, click to G.A. Benton's blog at blog.columbusalive.com/underthetable