In the fervid riptide of the last three months, I said goodbye to my cat, packed up the apartment in Brooklyn & swept it broom clean, and moved across BOTH rivers to land in Jersey City, NJ. I miss Brooklyn a great deal, and hope to be back soon, but in the meantime I am luxuriating in my central air, my laundry in the unit, my dishwasher, and my unreal view. Once the shock wore off a little, I’ve gotten back to exploring and eating my way around downtown Jersey City.
By and large, three ethnic flavors comprise and color Old Chicago: Italian, Irish and Polish. And since my mother is joining an extensive Polish fam in January when she marries a Rezack, I thought I’d familiarize myself with the native flavors before I face the meat, meat and more meat buffet at her wedding.
On my first tour of Grove Street, I was instantly attracted to the wooden and slightly fey mannequin in the window of Sava’s Polish Diner. His makeup looks a little color-by-number, and he knows how to accessorize—he features a tuft of fake hair where a pocket square might go. I had to eat there.
A boisterous Polish woman greeted me at the counter, and gave me a brief overview of the fare: Hungarian goulash (meat stew), stuffed fried cutlets of chicken and pork, mixed vegetables, and I ordered stuffed cabbage, pierogies, and kielbasa.
First off: this cuisine is not for texture warriors. Poles apparently like their food quite soft, salty, and a little flat in flavor profile. You must avail yourself of the horseradish mustard available on the side—I appreciate that burning, urgent moment when mustard hits your sinuses and you almost go blind with heat. It hurts so good.
The stuffed cabbage is prepared with onion, rice and “trap meat” (pork, I assume?), and bathed in a tomato gravy—think of a limper stuffed grape leaf. While I wasn’t so hot on that, the kielbasa was deliciously tender, and well-complemented by the tart and slightly bitter sauerkraut.
But the pierogies—ah, the pierogies. Pierogies are a Polish dumpling, made of potato, cheese, or fruit, namely cherries, and served either boiled or fried. If you had the sorry experience of dining hall pierogies at Grinnell, you might dismiss the species as akin to a rubber bath mat. Not so! And while Sava’s do smell like hair sizzling on a curling iron, they taste like a savory pillow of divinity, boiled for three minutes and covered in sour cream. I ate three. I could have stomached ten.
The atmosphere of the restaurant feels like a kitschy convenience store, with overhead lighting and stark tables. Oil paintings that feature buxom & nubile Eastern European women in traditional frocks line the walls, their smiles ready-made for beer bottle labels, their cleavage deep and mysterious like deep sea trenches.
Sava’s also sells traditional Polish condiments and hard-to-find imported goods, including pickled sorrel leaves, creamed horseradish, and powdered cherry pudding mix. It turns out that the mannequin is nameless, and picked up nearly 20 years ago when the restaurant was across from the Hudson County Court House. I kind of want to call him “Jamie.”