Milk Bar might be the most unusual restaurant to open in downtown Phoenix this year. The stylish restaurant and bar, which had its soft opening in February, is a modern update on the iconic bar mleczny (Polish for "milk bar"), the traditional worker canteen that reached the height of its popularity across Poland during the Communist era. These bleak cafeterias, famous for feeding the proletariat inexpensive yet wholesome meals, seem like an unlikely source of culinary inspiration.
But before diving into Milk Bar's menu of classic Polish grub, there's the matter of its unusual, ultramodern design. The whitewashed building — previously home to an art space, hair salon, and private residence, among other things — doesn't exactly blend in with the high-rise complexes cropping up around Roosevelt Row. The building was completely redesigned by owner and budding restaurateur Darek Pasieka, a local architect perhaps best known for rehabbing the 800M apartments in downtown Phoenix.
Pasieka, a graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, has transformed the formerly drab Milk Bar building into a bright, distinctly modern space — part Euro-inspired lounge, part Palm Springs experiment. The exterior has been outfitted with sleek concrete steps and pavers, minimalist desert landscaping, and two gleaming bull statues that watch over the sprawling outdoor patio.
Inside, dance club music blares over the house speakers, while panels of ambient mood lighting flicker languidly over the bar, which is stocked with an impressive collection of import vodka labels. Some light-hearted touches — including a pop art portrait of Pope John Paul II (Poland's most famous son) and light fixtures constructed out of milk bottles — help temper the flashiness of the space. But all this attention to design begs the question: What kind of food can you expect from such a style-conscious joint?
The answer is unpretentious, down-to-earth food, dressed up and delivered to the table by pleasant servers in black bowties and suspenders. Chef Sergio Cabrera Padrón, with some help from Pasieka's mother, Diane, takes the best from the original Polish milk bars — rustic, moderately priced dishes — and translates them into a refined tapas-style menu.
A good place to start is with the house field board, which offers a rustic sampling of sweet-and-savory elements. It includes a creamy, homemade farmers cheese and a small, slick mound of bacon pâté. The board comes with slices of German homestyle bread, ideal for scooping up the incredibly rich, porky paté, which smears easily onto the bread like jam. The mellow cheese, soft and unaged, helps balance the salty richness of the bacon, and a handful of raisins and orange slices add bright pops of sweetness. It's a deft balance of simple flavors, an achievement that's replicated across many of the restaurant's dishes.
Of course, what's Polish comfort food without homemade pierogi? Milk Bar offers the traditional dumplings with an array of fillings, the best of which are the cheese and potato variety. The slick little half-moon dumplings were excellent on a recent visit — savory, garnished with crispy crumbles of bacon, and fragrant with sautéed onions. The sauerkraut and mushroom dumplings, accompanied by a cool side of vodka-spiked sour cream sauce, were a close second.
Jalapeño and cheese pierogi, a Southwest twist on the Eastern European dumpling, are totally untraditional but surprisingly good. Pastry dough is used in place of the traditional eggy blend, and the results are lovely. The empanada-like bites bubble over with cheesy flecks of hot pepper.
The Taco Polaco plate is another Milk Bar original, a juicy, spicy riff on the classic Mexican street food. Instead of carne asada or chorizo, the two tacos are packed with spicy nubs of chopped kielbasa sausage and rounds of jalapeño and habanero peppers, then spiked with just enough sriracha to make your eyes tear up. Every bite is laced with heat and juice, the meat cooled down somewhat by shredded cabbage and sour cream. Although not for the faint of heart (or tongue), the Taco Polaco is unabashedly spicy, gutsy, and loaded with nice flavor.
Bigos, also known as hunter's stew, is perhaps the heartiest plate on the Milk Bar menu. It's also one of the best. The traditional meat and cabbage stew is substantial and nourishing, with tangy strains of sauerkraut playing against a medley of savory smoked meats. It's a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish, designed to get you through the harsh Slavic winters. But it tastes just as good here in the desert.
You can skip the Euro bruschetta, which is not much more than melted white cheese on French bread served with sautéed onions and mushrooms. You can closely approximate the dish in your own kitchen, with the leftover French bread pizza tucked in the back of your freezer.
Kielbasa, a traditional Polish sausage topped with caramelized onions and served with hot sauerkraut, is a better option. During a recent dinner, the kielbasa paired nicely with the house potato pancakes. The two golden brown pancakes were crisp at the edges and creamy in the center. Order them with a side of applesauce for a soft, sweet boost of flavor.
Sliders, two hefty little burgers bulging with thick patties made from a rich blend of minced pork and beef, are about as good as sliders can get. The burgers, juicy and well-seasoned with black peppers and herbs, are sandwiched between extra-crispy, buttery buns. They come with a small pail of crispy, well-seasoned fries.
Vodka is a point of pride in Poland, and you'll find it all over the menu at Milk Bar. Roughly half the menu comprises vodka-powered cocktails, including a hefty house martini called The Dirty Commie. You may be tempted to order the cocktail based on name alone, but be warned it features a lip-puckering shot of dill pickle juice. If you like your martinis extra stiff, and with a twist that doesn't have anything to do with lemon, this might be your next must-try martini.
But if you prefer your vodka in a more subtle form, don't pass on the vodka ice cream for dessert. Served in an elegant crystal glass, it's a creamy blend of vanilla bean ice cream glazed with smooth Sobieski brand vodka. The vodka, subtle but distinct, lends mellow and astringent tones to the sweetness of the dessert. It comes with a Pocky cookie stick, which is planted into the glass like an edible straw.
Skip the sweet pierogis — the blueberry filling doesn't quite work inside the eggy dumpling — and try the mleko and kolachke (milk and Polish pastries) instead. The glazed fruit and cheese pastries, looking much like miniature Danishes, offer a simple yet sweetly refined finish to a meal.
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But even if you make it a point to skip dessert, there is krówki. The complimentary semi-soft milk fudge candies, imported directly from Poland, will be dropped off at your table with the bill. It's a final bit of surprise from dinner at Milk Bar, a restaurant with a deftly modern spin on classic Polish cafeteria grub that is unexpected and, well, unusual.
801 North Third Street
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Field board $12.95
Vodka ice cream $4