"Get the pickle soup," came the voice from behind me.
There was a blizzard outside on Allegheny Avenue. And there was a blizzard of choices inside the tiny dining room of Dinner House Polish Cuisine, where a flurry of menu cards were stuck to a magnet board over the counter, and I simply couldn't decide from among the various zupy, golabki, pierogi, or golonka.
"Get the pickle soup," the young woman repeated in a rich Polish accent, wearing a golden velvet sweatsuit as she happily ate her pork chops alone. "I grew up with split-pea soup, so I avoid it. But the tripe soup is also very good."
A little help with recommendations from the regulars is always welcome, especially in a restaurant so genuinely Polish it could be just as at home in Bydgoszcz ("Bid-gosh") as it is in Port Richmond. Except, of course, for the "kielbasa subs" advertised in the front window, or the bright red Phillies visor chef Ela Balka wears when she shuffles out from the kitchen in her sandals — shhh, shhh, shhh — with two big bowls of soul-warming borscht.
I went there on a recommendation from Jamie Shanker, who writes the blog Phillyfoodadventures.com — and it proved to be a good one. I've long visited Port Richmond for my smoked kielbasa fix at butchers like Czerw's and Swiaki Meats, as well as the more expansive Krakus Market. The steam table at Syrenka has always been a stellar lunch value; I like the stuffed cabbage, but there's something I really can't resist about the side of buttery mashed beets. The New Wave Cafe, which doubles as a disco, is also a fun stop, with a full menu of traditional favorites.
But the understated storefront of the Dinner House is one destination for homespun Polish comfort foods that really should not be missed. And that pickle soup — an herb-flecked broth with potatoes and tiny bits of pickles that add a tart polka backbeat to every bite — is just one of many distinctive dishes.
Bydgoszcz native and owner Tom Balka opened the restaurant three years ago with mom Ela as chef after they spent several years as caterers in Philly's traditionally Polish neighborhood, where she can still get by with her limited English. They still cater parties for 300-plus at the nearby Polish Eagle Sports Club multiple times a year. But the Dinner House, which barely seats 20 at its five lace-fringed tables, is a far cozier affair, and decidedly no-frills in the counter service and ambiance, which is more or less dominated by the hum of a soda fridge and the echoes of activity from the kitchen. This cafe, in a former bakery, is really all about the cooking, which Ela delivers with a knowing grandma's touch.
Wham! Wham! Wham!
That's the sound of pork chops being smacked into tender submission in back. And it's such a frequent chorus — those boneless chops are ordered by seemingly every table — that it almost began to sound like applause. As we sliced through the buttery brown crust of coarse homemade bread crumbs into the soft pads of flavorful, juicy meat, we felt like clapping, too. "Best in the city," kvelled my companion, a pork chop aficionado. And I wouldn't dispute it, especially for the astonishing price of $9 a platter.
My lunches at the Dinner House were better than my dinner, when some of the dishes were still flavorful — the mushroom-stuffed chicken breast, the chicken meatballs in overly thick dill sauce — but tasted as though they'd been cooked too far in advance.
For the most part, though, this menu succeeds because of the enduring virtues of slow-cooked peasant cuisine. But it's elevated a notch above ordinary by some noticeable details of finesse. If there are more delicate pierogi in Philadelphia, I have not tasted them yet. Balka's dough is noticeably thinner than most I've seen, but each handmade dumpling is a perfectly plump semicircle of hearty stuffing, topped with a sweet pinch of deeply browned, caramelized onions. The classic cheese-and-potato — so often leaden elsewhere — manages somehow to be light and fluffy on the inside. The meat pierogi filled with ground pork and onions are perfectly seasoned with a subtle hit of pepper. My favorites, though, were the mushroom pierogies, whose centers were laced with the bright crunch of sauerkraut.
Those mushroom pierogies may have been even better as a garnish for the borscht, with the dumplings downsized into mini-moons that bobbed in the crimson consommé, adding extra layers of earthy depth to the lightly sweet and tangy beet broth. As with that red borscht, a careful balance of sweet and sour was key in several old favorites, like the golabki — stuffed cabbage rolls whose mildly seasoned pork and rice fillings were wrapped in cabbage leaves so tender I could cut each slice off with the side of a fork. A dish of pork neck braised with onions and peppers (karkówka w sosie) was cut into thick rounds that were equally yielding and irresistible. Smoke added another dynamic to the tangy bigos (Hunter's Stew), whose moist kraut exuded a powerful smokehouse savor.
The long list of other "zupy" soups were uniformly great, from the familiar solace of a golden chicken noodle soup to the unique personality of the zurek. Sometimes known as "white borscht," this is essentially a soup made from old rye bread that's been fermented to a heady sour in hot water, like tea, for two weeks, then transformed into a soulful, herbaceous broth scented with marjoram and garlic and filled with chunks of smoky kielbasa, potatoes, and hard-boiled eggs that add heft to the tangy, thin gruel.
If that doesn't sound good, it was. And so too, to my surprise, was the tripe soup recommended by our dining room neighbor. I can sometime find tripe a little too barnyard funky when it's not carefully made. That was not the case, however, with Ela Balka's flaki, in which the beef tripe was pristinely cleaned, cooked for several days, and then cut into such dainty and fragile shreds it was almost as though the marjoram- and paprika-infused red beef broth was filled with egg drop ribbons. Advice to offal novices considering the leap: Just close your eyes and eat.
Balka's food is homey grandma cooking that prizes heart over daintiness, to say the least, and it can become especially frumpy when the sauces get overthickened with sour cream. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And no matter where you land on the aesthetics of the "Hungarian pancake," a dauntingly huge potato pancake wrapped around beef goulash stew then topped with a tan mushroom cream striped with vivid orange garlic sauce, this is one a knockout of cold-weather flavors, and one of the most deliciously indulgent things I've eaten this winter. It's like the Polish quesadilla of my dreams, but better, because I could eat either the pancake or the stew on its own.
"Get the Hungarian pancake," I'd whisper from the next table over if you were standing as perplexed as I was in front of the Dinner House's wall of menu options. "Get the pierogi. Get the pork chop. And, yes, get the pickle soup."