It is said that pierogi, the filled dumplings of Poland, may be the country's one dish that has its own patron saint. And Danuta Zablocki's pierogi are indeed heavenly enough to be worthy of evoking the name of St. Hyacinth — or perhaps a more familiar religious figure — when they first roll over the tongue.
Like most Polish foods, Zablocki's pierogi are a hearty lot — each one like a small meal packed into a folded, circle-shaped cushion of smooth, paper-thin dough. There are three kinds of fillings: housemade farmers cheese, minced potatoes, and onions; a finely chopped mixture of lightly seasoned beef and chicken; and homemade sauerkraut and mushrooms. Boiled, fried, and sprinkled with bits of crispy bacon, onions, and potatoes, the seven peirogi served on each plate make for a simple yet highly comforting meal.
I enjoy my pierogi with sour cream, but butter can be just as tasty. And Zablocki tells me her ruskie pierogi (the ones made with cheese, potatoes, and onions) traditionally are served with a glass of buttermilk, which she keeps on hand for her Polish customers.
Zablocki's pierogi come courtesy of her Sunnyslope business, the aptly named Polish Goodies, which she runs with husband, Richard. Both from cities in southwestern Poland, the two met in Phoenix in 1999. Four years later, Danuta started a sandwich shop in the Scottsdale Airpark called Lunch 'N Go. Shortly thereafter, Richard became involved in the restaurant as well. It was successful for a time, but the recession eventually took its toll. In 2011, with their customer base diminished, their personal savings gone, and the couple no longer able to pay their bills, the landlord locked the Zablockis out of their restaurant.
"We sat down together and said, What are we going to do now? We are too old for most companies to hire us [both are in their late 50s] and we were $50,000 in debt," Danuta tells me. "Well, we said, at least we know we can cook."
The couple decided to focus on the traditional foods of their homeland — the ones Danuta remembers making with her mother on weekends when she was a little girl. But a Polish restaurant, for Danuta, was out of the question.
"Most Polish people cook at home. They don't go to restaurants," Danuta says. "And Americans — except for those in cities like Chicago or states like Wisconsin — don't know Polish food very well. Plus, it's heavy. Lots of fat."
Instead, the Zablockis decided the best and most economical means of getting back on their feet was to sell small quantities of their home-style Polish foods at farmers markets throughout the Valley. The idea worked. And the number of markets featuring a Polish Goodies stand quickly went from one to 11. Needing a larger kitchen, the Zablockis secured a small Sunnyslope spot in July to become the brick-and-mortar location of Polish Goodies. And a tiny dining area in the front meant a low-risk way of inviting guests to sit down for a meal while still maintaining their primary operation.
For those in search of a small, and mostly standout, selection of traditional Polish foods, finding Polish Goodies (hidden away behind a Radio Shack and a Walgreens at Seventh Street and Dunlap) is quite the discovery. Here, one can find an affordable, fill-you-up lunch or take-away dinner. And daily meal specials are simply one more reason to stop by.
On Wednesdays, there is a good beef roulade, featuring thin slices of beef rolled around pickles, ham, and onions in a pool of simple, meaty broth with dense and slightly salty mashed potatoes and sweet red cabbage. On Thursdays, beef goulash, featuring thick, lightly seasoned sauce covering chunks of beef, is served with luscious potato dumplings and red beets. Fridays, of course, mean fish — a fried fillet served with mashed potatoes and a crunchy sauerkraut salad. No matter which day of the week, none of the specials will leave you pining for a snack before dinner.
On the standard menu, if you order the golabki, Poland's popular stuffed cabbage dish, you will receive a serving of two the size of mini-footballs. With a filling of brown rice, ground beef, fried onions, and a blend of spices wrapped tightly inside leaves of white cabbage sufficiently doused with a thin tomato sauce, the dish practically begs for a bit of bread or a few boiled potatoes (which, sadly, are not offered). Better is the chopped sweet cabbage with sausage. An invention of Richard's, this bowl of green and red bell peppers, onions, and cabbage mixed with spices and slices of flavorful Polish sausage (including a large piece on top for good measure) is reminiscent of a hearty stew without the bother of a broth.
And the sausage at Polish Goodies, made by a friend of the Zablockis originally from Chicago, is near-perfect.
Smoky with a boldly seasoned and slightly spicy flavor, the husky links can be had alongside Danuta's stellar homemade sauerkraut, made with onions and carrots and sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper, or below it — wrapped in a thick, crunchy bun alongside bottles of mustard and horseradish to add as you please.
If St. Hyacinth has blessed you with room for dessert, there is nalesniki, more or less the Polish version of crepes. With a choice of cheese or plum butter filling, two warm triangular pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar are a sweet ending to a filling Polish meal.
The one thing to keep in mind at Polish Goodies (besides the fact that, for now, it is a cash-only establishment) is that it is a means of making food for the farmers markets first and a restaurant second. The kitchen, stocked with four packed freezers and a pierogi-making table, is twice the size of the eating area — a small, decidedly beige space with four two-top tables, paintings of landscapes on the walls, and an ordering counter where Richard works on Sudoku puzzles. The experience is less like being at a restaurant and more like popping into Grandma's house unannounced. You half-expect to hear a screen door slam.
Not such a bad thing.
Richard, Danuta, or both are always on hand, and they are as gracious as they are informal. The to-go menu even features a photo of the dining area with Richard walking into frame wearing a white tank top. They'll take your order, pour your water from a plastic pitcher into tiny Styrofoam cups, and tell you they'll be in the back working, so holler if you need anything. Since most of the food is prepared beforehand, sometimes the re-heating process is successful, other times not so much.
It doesn't take long to become fast friends with the Zablockis. And supporting this couple's comeback with a Polish sausage or a few pierogi — either at the eatery or at a nearby farmers market — is a show of faith that is mutually beneficial.