Nor is it Buffalo or Minneapolis or Milwaukee.
We just don't have the large communities of Eastern Europeans that our cold urban cousins along the Great Lakes do. This explains why we have such a dearth of Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and Polish restaurants--not to mention Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Russian and German.
Yep, if you want to eat Polish piroghi at a full-service, sit-down restaurant in Phoenix, you're pretty much out of luck. But things are not entirely hopeless. We do have a smattering of Polish outposts selling pastries, sausages, sandwiches, soups and the occasional hot food item. I thought I'd round them up for you. Best of Europe Meats & Deli is shiny and new and the food here is very good. Jack Mazur, the man behind the counter, is outgoing, insistent and persuasive. "What can I do for you?" he asks. "You want lunch? I give you a nice stuffed cabbage roll with some rye bread on the side. It's hot out of the oven and very nice. How does that sound?" he says to me. Then he nods at my dining accomplice. "I recommend you have one, too, sir."
"What about soup?" I ask. "What do you have?"
"I recommend the vegetable soup. It's very nice. Very good."
"How about the borscht?"
Jack Mazur looks down at the glass cases of homemade cold cuts in front of him. "No, I don't have that today. Only vegetable. You'll like it," he says, definitively. "You want some? With the two stuffed cabbage rolls?"
My dining accomplice pipes up. "Uh, we'd like to try different things. What could I have besides the cabbage roll?"
Our salesman falls silent. Either he doesn't know what to suggest or he's already exhausted his list. "Go over to the cooler and bring me the soup," he tells me. "I fix these things while you think." I hand him the Styrofoam container of soup and he disappears into the back.
While he's gone, we examine the shelves of imported soup mixes, jams, hard candies, pickles, tea and mustard in this tiny store. We ogle the homemade lunch meats. In the cooler that housed the soup, there are Styrofoam trays of piroghi--ready to take home and cook--as well as containers of mysterious food items called bigos and flaczki.
"What's flaczki?" I ask, when Jack returns.
"Soup made from beef tripe. It's a gourmet item," he says, with emphatic nonchalance.
My dining accomplice does not feel like eating beef tripe today. "I'll have the sample sandwich," he announces, pointing to an item on the menu.
"On rye bread?"
"What kind of meat you want?"
This conversation confuses me until later, when I look at the menu more carefully. The two "sample sandwiches" listed are merely suggestion; you have to tell Jack what you really want. No wonder our host is asking so many questions.
But the end result is good. My accomplice receives a Dagwood-size sandwich of cold cuts I couldn't even begin to recount, with Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. It's very good.
The stuffed cabbage is also good--and large. It's cut open length-wise, exposing a meat-and-rice filling that reminds me of hash. The cabbage roll is served with slices of rye, a slice of tomato and a pickle.
My vegetable soup arrives midway through our meal. I like its lightly creamy consistency and its ingredients--spaetzle, celery, dill and carrot, but I'm disappointed that it's only tepid. And there's so much! One container of soup is really large enough to be shared by two people. We sit at one of the two red-and-white-checked tables and eat. We have come at the right time. Within minutes, the deli fills up with people looking for lunch. Unfortunately, not all of them want it "to go." "Oh, I'm so sorry," says our guy to one woman. "There's no place for you to sit down. Let me find you a chair in the back." Fortunately, by the time her companion's lunch order is prepared, the party occupying the one other table leaves. Phew!
On my way out, I purchase some foodstuffs to try later at home. Bigos, a dish traditionally served during hunting expeditions, is wonderful. Basically a sauerkraut soup with smoked sausage and other meat, it is hearty and satisfying. I take home a tray of cheese-and-potato piroghi and sautee them in a little oil until they're a light-golden brown. The delicate half-moon dumplings are delicious--even after spending a week in the freezer.
Finally, I love the Polish treat known as paczki, which looks like a jelly doughnut sprinkled with powdered sugar. What makes it exceptional is the rum-flavored dough and the unusual rose jam filling. These particular paczki are delicious and probably addicting.