In Buffalo, NY, the heartiest residents could care less what the thermometer reads in the middle of December. The locally thick skin, as they say, is either an ode to the phenomenal human capacity for adaption or a side effect of one too many Molson Canadians. Whichever the reason, at the shabbily great Sterling Tavern on the north side of town a couple of weeks back, my good friends and I were presented with a perfect example. The restaurant cook who came out to take our order was no more than five-and-a-half feet of stocky build. He had the punished face of someone who had previously either been a boxer or had spent decades at sea. A sharp field of stubble and his intense stare could intimidate the smile off of anyone. In contrast, however, was the above the knee, super tight khaki shorts he was wearing around the place despite his patrons being in sweaters and coats. Either the kitchen was damn hot or by his generous bulge he was just damn happy to see everyone.
He glided to the bar and sternly asked us how many orders of pierogi we wanted. We ordered one. He stood there for a moment unflinching, wide-eyed like an owl. Had we not ordered enough? He then began to tell us of other Polish delicacies he spends hours trying to perfect. How he was a wizard with cabbage. Some more staring followed. After several long seconds, he turned towards the kitchen and scampered away in his restrictive short pants.
I can’t speak for his cabbage skills, but he was certainly a wizard with a pierogi. The classic Polish soul food is practically worshipped in the Western New York burg of my birth where a huge portion of the population has a ‘ski’ abutting their surnames. The soft, doughy pockets stuffed with either/or mushrooms, mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and/or a sweet farmer’s cheese were perfectly pan-fried, albeit they were much larger than normal. An equally large helping of fried onions covered the pierogi like a jungle moss. Plopped down in the middle was a generous dollop of sour cream, a necessary sidekick to any pierogi plate. Like newly released prisoners, we inhaled them before Mr. Intensity could traipse back to the kitchen.
That type of food; that unabashed, blue-collar nourishment is one of the things I love about where I spent my wonder years. Simply prepared, hearty meals, book-ended by a couple of beers is just half the distance to the idea of comfort food for me. The other half comes form sharing it with good people. That night, I was more than comfortable.
WHAT: pierogies in bar light
WHEN: December 15, 2011
WHERE: The Sterling Tavern, Buffalo, New York, United States