Lady of the Highlands
I must have looked at the sign Podhalanka across the street from the west bound #70 bus stop on the Polish Triangle and must have also walked past the restaurant itself hundreds of times and yet I was never curious in the least to nudge the door open and enter the place even just to check it out. Looking from outside in, what I could see through the mostly covered windows and the doors was a place dark and dingy inside. The long tables draped with the curling plastic covers and generally unkempt look of the place didn’t look too inviting. And it seemed generally stuck into the devil may care attitude of the communist era. And yet, as I began to look more into doing Down Division, I realized the importance of the Polish Triangle and its relationship to Division Street, it became inevitable that I had to check out Podhalanka – loosely translated Lady of the Highlands – and find out how it could have become a part of the history of what makes Division Division. What better person to go have dinner with me there than my Polish friend Marek
I was the first one to arrive. Feeling apprehensive based on the reviews on Yelp, I was fully expecting to be greeted by a pushy middle aged man. No such man to be found. Instead lurking in the background was an elderly lady weaving between two long tables, serving her dinner guests. She waves me in to sit down at one of the empty tables. Sunk into my chair, I could hardly put my arms over the table top, feeling like a toddler needing a booster seat or a pile of old telephone directories. Soon as Marek arrives, she places the menus and two short glasses filled with red liquid on the table – looking like cheap red wine. We make this in the house. She informs us. Marek declines it, I decide to try it. Some sort of spiced syrupy looking red liquid. Wouldn’t kill me, I think and drink it. Soon we move to the bar with our menus in our hands.
Apprehensively, I order Kotlet Schabowy – breaded pork cutlet and Marek orders Ryba Smazona – fried fish. The meals include soup and salad and come with mashed potatoes and gravy. Just like back home! Muses Marek. Not bad! I mutter. We bring home Pirczen Wieprzowa – roast pork dinner for Eric. Eric raves at every bite he takes. And all of that for less than fifteen dollars! Only thing missing was a chilled mug of Zywiec or Okocim. But no worries, you can bring your own wine and beer. What can be better? A piping hot bowl of their mushroom barley soup! I got a taste of it during one of my follow up visits. The best mushroom barley soup I ever had! I tell her. She is pleased with an “of course” smirk on her face.
As Marek and I sat at the bar savoring our delicious food, my eyes caught sight of a couple of signs that most everyone would have missed. Right across from where we sat, staring at us were two small placards. They said:
KEEP THIS PLACE IN MIND
For A Better One Is Hard To Find
THERE IS NO PLACE
JUST LIKE THIS PLACE
Anywhere Near This Place
So This Must Be The Place
I couldn’t help but grin, thinking they sure have a sense of humor. And what a delight it was to chat with the owner/head chef, cute as dickens seventy one years old Helena Madej! After a bit of hesitation, she begins to talk – and smile. Even in her black chef’s apron thrown over a pink knit crew necked top, there was something charming about her. If a bit mischievous, still a very good looking, I couldn’t help but just imagine how hot she must have been in her youth!!
Born in Krakow, Poland in 1947, she is still a feisty lady. If not perfect, she speaks fluent English. Animated and full of vigor, you can’t help but notice a certain impish glint in her eyes and a constant sense of wonderment in her smiles. Helena, married and divorced, has a daughter in her thirties. She came to Chicago in 1981 to join many of her family members, some of whom had come to the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century in 1905. In 1986, at the height of the concentration of the Polish population in the neighborhood, she took over the existing Podhalanka, and has not only survived but is still thriving after 32 years of feeding the locals. At the time it wasn’t easy existing around crime infested three way intersection at Ashland, Milwaukee and Division – but I am not afraid. One night around eleven a guy from the neighborhood breaks in. I was alone with just one helper. He demands: Give me money. I shout back at him: I give you nothing. Get out of here, I know who you are. He yells, “you bitch, open the door.” Similarly, a Mexican young man walked in with a knife, she stood her ground and threaten to call police. He promptly exited the restaurant.
I have always wondered what drives people to open a restaurant, one of the riskiest businesses and one that requires twenty four seven involvement and practically no free time. It obviously had to be deep passion and love for what it takes. To that Helena says: I love this business and I love my customers. And I love it that my restaurant provides a place for the Polish people to come together and enjoy home cooked meals.
All those negative reviews on Yelp and other social media had demonized Helena’s nephew Greg Jamka. On my second visit I encountered him as a stern looking man with a deep gruff voice, closely cropped salt and pepper hair, wearing a red and blue striped t-shirt. His looks sort of confirmed those reviews. But to my astonishment, as I waited for Helena, what I witnessed proved him to be a man so kind and considerate.
Waiting at the table next to mine was a young African American woman. When she walked up to the counter to pick up her take out order, she realized that Podhalanka was a cash only restaurant, which she didn’t have.
‘You live in the neighborhood, don’t you?’
‘I work close by here!’
‘You can stop by tomorrow or sometime in the next days with the money.’
Fumbling into her purse, she pulls out a few dollar bills which she offers to pay. She has only about ten dollars.
‘No problem. I’ll take that. The total is $13.40. You can stop by anytime and pay the rest in the next couple of days.’
Huhn! This nephew, he wasn’t such a devil after all! And I was touched at the kindness of his voice with which he put the young woman at ease!
What more can you expect from a down home neighborhood restaurant?
© 2018 Haresh Shah
PODHALANKA, 1549 West Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60642 +1 773 486 6655
WICKER PARK WEIRDO
He didn’t seem crazy and or even drunk. All he was looking for was some matches or a lighter to light his cigarette with. And yet, there are times you encounter people, you can’t help but wonder.
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