Last week, one of the dudes hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates to run around in a pierogi costume was fired for comments he made about the team on Facebook. Not being from Pennsylvania, I could've cared less about the ridiculous mascot and his social media woes. But the incident did have this New York transplant suddenly craving an East Coast nosh that's hard to find in the Southwest -- pierogi.
They're basically little dumplings boiled or pan-fried and traditionally filled with potato, onions, sauerkraut and/or meat. We hit up two local eateries to see if their pierogi could stand the heat, or if they would get burned as badly as the Pirates' mascot.
In One Corner: Pastis Delicatessen and Eurogrille
1935 S. Val Vista Dr. in Mesa
While they've been adopted and Americanized by places with a high concentration of Slovakian immigrants along the Eastern Seaboard, pierogi (or pierogies, in English) are an Eastern European tradition. They're common in Poland and the Ukraine, though fillings and cooking technique vary from place to place. I figured Pastis, a contemporary European deli and restaurant in Mesa, was a good place to start.
It's definitely not what Americans think of as a deli. The place is sleek and very dimly lit. There's a large mirrored bar and a pastry case that's loaded with decadent desserts including fist-sized chunks of baklava. Neutral green walls and red accents make for a warm, casual look.
We ordered up the pierogi appetizer and were surprised to see a plate of six deep-fried crescents arrive at our table with a side of greens and two dipping sauces. Granted, the Jewish version of pierogi are fried and a few countries pan-fry theirs, but in America the norm is boiled. My friend took a bite and immediately started grumbling.
"This isn't a pierogi! It's a friggin' knish," he griped.
If you're not familiar with a knish, it's a Jewish snack food that's often served at delis and hot dog carts in East Coast metropolitan areas. Fillings vary, but most often the knish is mashed potato or meat fried inside a dough pocket until golden brown. BINGO! We have a winner.
My friend was totally right. With subtle spices and a mashed potato filling wrapped inside a fried pocket, this pierogi tasted exactly like a knish. It was pretty good when dipped in the creamy cucumber and mint tzatziki, but very heavy and not what I was expecting.
Even scarier were the three pierogi stuffed with meat. While the menu indicated ground beef, I could swear the meat looked white and shredded. Maybe it was the dim lighting. Of course, that doesn't explain why the texture was reminiscent of canned tuna and the dry, coarse meat had an unidentifiable flavor that was more like pork or chicken. My dining partner enjoyed the beef version, but I needed the savory, spicy chipotle sauce to make it palatable.
In the Other Corner: Pittsburgh Willy's
Inside Merchant Square Antique Market
1509 N. Arizona Ave. in Chandler
Talk about contrasts. While Pastis is a modern, European-influenced cafe, Pittsburgh Willy's is a hot dog stand cluttered with kitschy Pittsburgh Steelers ephemera (down to the Steelers-print curtains) inside an antique mall. The eatery has just three tables and a kitchen smaller than the one in my college apartment. Sports games were featured on Pastis' lovely flat-screen. Willy's old-fashioned clunker of a television set played The Andy Griffith Show -- though I suspect country classics give way to Steelers games every time there's one on.
Owner Randy Walters (aka "Willy") only offers pierogies on Wednesdays, so I was left to dine alone. If you're daring you can opt for the Blitzburgh: 6 pierogies smothered in butter and topped with sauerkraut, chili, cheddar and Kielbasa. To be fair, I ordered the plain pierogi. But there's always next time...
Six round, doughy dumplings in a pool of melted butter arrived on a Styrofoam plate. Classy. But don't let that deter you from eating here. From the little fork indentations made while crimping down the edges of the dough, I could tell these babies were handmade.
Later, when I had questions about the pierogi, Walters was already walking around asking the folks at his three filled tables how their lunch was and telling us about the food. You don't get that kind of service anywhere these days.
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I bit into the pierogi and was rewarded with a mouthful of creamy mashed potato and pasta dough. The dumplings were cooked slightly al dente, which gave the outer wrapping a little firmness which contrasted with the smooth filling. Spices were kept to a minimum, though the sprinkle of salty, spicy Cajun seasoning gave the dish a slight kick and warmth appropriate to Southwestern cuisine.
I would've preferred the cleaner taste of a dollop of sour cream to the overzealous pond of butter, but otherwise this dish was exactly what I imagine when I hear the word pierogi.
The Winner: Hands down, Pittsburgh Willy's.