Ordering food at a Polish milk bar eatery in Warsaw, Poland is like stepping into a Seinfeld rerun -- the soup Nazi episode. I walk up to a cashier dressed in a green cafeteria uniform with a stern expression on her face.
" Zupa Krupnik, prosze (pro-sha)," I say proudly (a vegetable soup that's easy to pronounce).
"No soup," she quickly retorts.
I step out of line and begin furiously flipping through my book.
Milk bars, Bar Mleczny, are cafeteria-style restaurants left over from the days of communism when the government subsidized eateries for the poor. At this infamous milk bar called the Pod Barbakanem, I stare aimlessly at the menu board on the wall: botwinka -- pomidorowa -- szczawiowa -- zraz zawijany -- ahh, pierogi! I step back in line, hoping this time I won't be turned away. " Pierogi Russe," I say, nervously. Without speaking, the cashier clanks on the machine, punching in what seems like her life story, then hands me a receipt. Whew, I made it.
A few paces over, I move into another line, this one directly in front of the kitchen. While waiting, I notice the ambience -- no pictures on the walls, no music, no talking. How communist: order, eat and leave.
" Pierogi Russe," yells a woman in a plastic hair net behind the counter. I step up to grab a plate full of palm-sized dumplings that look like tiny pillows. With no sauce or spices to interrupt the taste, I "mm" and "ahh" my way through the pockets filled with cheese and potatoes. For five zloty, ($1.75), you can fill up on enough pierogies to satisfy a football player.
Originally serving only meat-free and dairy-based food, milk bars now offer stews, pierogi, salads and more. There are not as many milk bars around now as there once was during the Communist era, but it's still the cheapest option for traditional Polish food. But for a few zlotys more, you can find traditional restaurants with oodles of ambience.
For supper, I head to Warsaw's Old Town and into the epicentre: the Royal Castle Square where new buildings sit on top of post war rubble.
The Poles have taken painstaking efforts to reconstruct Warsaw after the war -- they had no choice -- the Nazis destroyed almost 90 per cent of the city.
Today, the square is buzzing with people taking pictures, riding around in horse-drawn carriages and socializing at restaurant patios. On a quieter side street, The Perrogeria restaurant serves a funky pierogi: a crispy baked dumpling version that's larger than the traditional size. I dive into five large "pockets" of baked mushroom and spinach pierogies smothered in a white garlic sauce with fresh dill weed -- a favourite Polish herb.
To wash it down, I head back into the Square for a Polish brew. Sitting across from the immaculate salmon coloured castle, it's hard to believe at 33-years-old, I'm almost a decade older this 14th century replica. On a patio table at the Restauracia Staromieska, my smiling waiter takes my order.
"Big Beer," I say, "prosze."
"Big?" he replies, incredulously.
"Yes, big," I reassure him.
"Big?" he asks once more, gesturing the size.
A moment later a beer stein of Tyskie, (a popular Polish brand), the size of my head appears.
"Big, yeah?" jokes the waiter.
Taking two hands to raise it to my lips, I agree. At 16 zloty ($6 Canadian), I don't mind not chugging the entire litre.
Leaving Warsaw, I continue south to Krakow where tourists almost equal the number of restaurants. When I ask a local woman on the street for a good pierogi restaurant, she escorts me to The Vincenta. Inspired by Van Gogh, the walls are sun bright yellow.
All five tables are taken and over the counter a giant paper maché dumpling hangs like a shrine to the almighty pierogi. I finally get a seat, but I can't make up my mind: chicken and pineapple, spinach and mozzarella, and a 'Vincent' dumpling made with meat and lentils are a few options. I opt for a decadent calorie busting cherry and chocolate-filled pierogi.
But even after all these new varieties, I finally reached my capacity for pierogi.
My final gastronomic tour is further south. From Krakow I take a two-hour bus to Zakopane in the foothills of the Tetra Mountains -- a mountain range spreading across the Polish/Slovakian border. With a small backpack and sturdy shoes, I leave the tourists in Zakopane behind. Eventually the green path changes into a manicured rock path skirting around a mountainside. Six hours later, at 2100 metres, my quads are shaking and I'm almost at the top of Kozi Wierch Mountain.
On the other side of the mountain is a valley of five sky blue lakes where I can also see my bed for the night in a picturesque log cabin. Not to mention a well-earned supper of bigos -- a dish that almost trumps pierogies as the ultimate comfort food.
It takes several days and many more pots of cabbage to create one pot of Polish "hunters stew" made from sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, various meats (beef, pork, or smoked sausage and ham), and if I'm lucky, Polish mushrooms.
My stomach is grumbling as I slowly lower myself down the chain link fence.
Finally on flat ground, I go right for the bigos and beer. Too bad there isn't a bed for the night -- the cabin is booked up. But at this point, the floor is fine with me. With a belly full of bigos -- ambience hardly matters.
Pack your appetite
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Pod Barbakanem: 27/29 Mostowa.
Pierrogeria: 30 Krzywe Kolo.
Restaurant Staromiejska: Plac Zamkowy 15/19 Warsaw
Vincenta: 11 Jozefa Krakow
Polish National Tourism Office: .