Excellent scratch-made pierogi and sausages are the stars of a vegan-friendly eatery with traditional Eastern European roots and contemporary American accents
If the walls at 739 S. Third St. could talk, they might describe how the Franklin Brewing Company built them in 1889. Those walls could also verify that Max and Erma were real people — last name Visocnik — who opened a bar/restaurant in 1958 at the aforementioned German Village address. The walls might even rap rhapsodic about the first names of the Visocniks being commemorated by the restaurant chain created there in 1972, after chain-creators Barry Zacks and Todd Barnum bought the establishment from the Visocniks.
There likely wouldn’t be much to say about the space becoming dormant in 2017, when the original Max & Erma’s closed after about six decades of service. Since March, though, when an eatery and a separate beverage business moved into the well-preserved historic building, the walls would have plenty to chat about again — and most of it would be positive.
Vintage bricks, stained glass, Tiffany-esque lamps, Victorian-era-evoking photographs, plus wood carved into polished wall panels and wacky sculptures — as well as an inviting old elaborate bar — still provide amusement throughout the roomy space.
Dining concessions now arrive courtesy of scratch-cooking, inexpensive and vegan-friendly Pierogi Mountain. A little comfort-food operation that was celebrated on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” Guy Fieri’s popular Food Network show — the business has another regular kitchen gig at Cafe Bourbon Street, a punk-rock dive — Pierogi Mountain sells soulful, Eastern European-leaning fare from a service window in fast-casual style.
The company’s pierogi, whose primary draw is a soothing, Old-World-style exterior fashioned from an old family recipe, are a steal at $1.50 apiece. True to the eatery’s aesthetic, the mostly mashed potato-based innards of the pierogi vary from traditional to inventive.
A good place to start is with the classic potato-and-cheddar pierogi, which is very successfully built for comfort. Like all pierogi here, the plump dumpling arrives with an attractively browned side and with candy-sweet caramelized onions, plus squiggles of real or vegan sour cream. Some other pierogi I recently enjoyed (expect filling options to change often): ginger-kissed cabbage gyoza, bacon-apple-Gorgonzola, smoked Gouda with asparagus, and potato-sauerkraut-mushroom.
The house-made sausages are likewise terrific. In fact, if there’s a better vegan sausage in town, I haven’t tried it. Meat eaters will enjoy the regularly offered Smoked-Pork Kielbasa, but if the Pastrami Sausage is available, snap it up. All sausages, which are hefty and served with spicy mustard and aggressive grilled sauerkraut ($5), can be made into a sandwich on a locally baked roll ($7).
Pierogi Mountain also offers: a very good Beef Schnitzel Sandwich ($6), starring chicken-fried-steak-like meat; Haluski (noodles with spicy and herb-forward cabbage, carrots and radishes; $6); crisp, highly recommended Latkes (two for $4); an OK salad bumped up by nuts, strawberries, lentils and millet (Kasha Salatka, $6); and distinct Chicken Paprikash ($6), which Fieri loved, that’s made with wads of noodles, a little pulled meat and loads of rich gravy fragrant with paprika. Keep an eye out for chalkboard specials, too, such as the inhalable Cider-Braised Pot Roast ($8; served with haluski) swamped in rich-yet-tangy beef gravy.
Wunderbar, an unaffiliated operation, ably handles the beverage part of the service equation. Because drinks must be ordered separately at the handsome old wooden bar, it gives patrons a chance to linger over the large and ornate artifact bordered by what look like intricately carved ship figureheads.
Whether enjoying Pierogi Mountain’s rib-sticking fare with a beer from Wunderbar’s versatile little draft selection (most glasses are $6), or with a satisfying cocktail — such as the bright-yet-creamy Baja to Bangkok (with tequila, lime, kiwi, coconut milk and basil; $9) or After the Gold Rush (whiskey-spiked iced tea with lemon and honey; $9) — that visit will give patrons something interesting to talk about.