Sauerkraut and Steak Tartare
Dining Polish at Dom Polski
There aren't many places in Seattle where you feel like you're in another country, and that's a shame. I love the sense of dislocation that comes when you're surrounded by people speaking a different language, sharing a common culture you know little or nothing about.
At Dom Polski, a private club that serves Seattle's Polish community (one-night memberships are available to the public on Fridays for $1; a yearlong membership costs $20), you can tear through impossibly large ham hocks and pillowy pierogi in an atmosphere that feels as much like Eastern Europe as any bright-lit beer hall I ever went to in Prague. (Forgive me, Poland, I haven't visited you—next time, I promise.) A cheerful blonde with braided hair cracks O.K. and Zywiec beers at a surprisingly sceney bar in the corner (all beers $4 or $5) as a large man in a black leather jacket moves casually from table to table, talking in Polish to several elaborately dressed women before returning to his beer. A college-age girl asks me—in Polish—if she can take a chair. The place is stuffed with Eastern European kitsch, from the heart cutouts on the quaint wooden shutters to the fake water droplets on the polyester carnations.
As a Texan whose Jewish mother still won't allow pork in the house, I don't know from Polish food, but let me go out on a limb and declare Dom Polski authentic (and, pork saturation aside, oddly similar to the Jewish-by-way-of-Hattiesburg food Mom used to make). The first time I visited, four of us started (and I use the term loosely—items tend to arrive with little regard for course or order) with the "beefsteak tartar" ($6.50)—a pretty pink mound of raw ground beef the size of a Top Pot doughnut, topped with a single, perfect egg yolk and surrounded by a ring of finely minced onion. I'm a big fan of tartare, but Dom Polski's version was a bit disappointing—a little on the mushy side, without capers or another salty accent to offset the blandness of all that unseasoned beef.
But no matter. The Polish Platter ($11) arrived moments later, and all was forgiven. It consists of one cabbage roll; one gorgeous link of kielbasa; a fluffy, dill-topped ice-cream scoop of whipped potatoes; an almost comically fuchsia pile of shredded beet and carrot salad; and a generous heap of homemade sauerkraut. Although I loved everything on the platter (the cabbage rolls are the beef-and-rice-stuffed, long-baked variety, topped with a piquant, creamy red sauce, and they're well worth ordering on their own: $9) the sauerkraut was a revelation: appealingly crisp and tart without the overpickled flavor of its canned counterparts, more like a slaw than the gray, vinegar-drenched stuff you get at the supermarket.
Up next: a double order of pierogi ($8), filled with various mixtures of unknown but meaty provenance, satisfying and hearty; a bowl of bracingly vinegary cabbage and tomato soup (billed on the menu only as "soup": $4); big fluffy white rolls served with horseradish and packets of yellow mustard; and the deceptively named "hock" ($11)—a diminutive word for something so plate- engulfingly huge. The meat, cooked for hours and hours until it's falling off the bone, reminded me of the smoked pork shank you toss in with greens in the South; so tender you could eat it with a spoon, which sounds gross, but isn't.
A friend I took with me on my second visit was a little put off, however, by the presence of actual pig flesh (sans hair but with very visible pores) on the exterior of a second hock, this one even more preposterously massive than the last. (Personally, I suspect the presence of several identifiable toe bones might have squicked her out more than the pigskin, if I'd been so uncharitable as to point it out.) The two of us were at pains to even make a dent in the second pile of pig, though that might have had as much to do with the decision to order the breaded pork chop ($11) as with squeamishness. The chop, pounded, breaded, and delicately fried, was wonderfully tender and white inside, with a perfectly crisp, seemingly greaseless exterior—like the Platonic ideal of a chicken-fried steak (or, more to the point, a good Wiener schnitzel). Just to gild the lily, it was accompanied by "white cabbage"—a hot, chicken-brothy version of Dom Polski's kraut. Although most of the chop ended up coming home with me (for a surprisingly successful reheating in the oven), we scraped up every bit of the hot slaw within minutes of its arrival.
Polish Home is more like a foreign country than a restaurant, but it's a foreign country you'll want to visit again and again. The food is simple, honest, and comforting—like the Polish grandmother it will make you wish you had.