Checking out neighborhood restaurants over the years, I’ve always kept a weather eye open for a warm place to a spend a long winter’s night — a place that rekindles the feeling of family dining.
So it wasn’t just pure luck the other night to run into a Polish restaurant called Polka; as the fellow says when he bumps into a car to collect insurance, "It was done accidentally on purpose."
Approaching the corner of Verdugo Road and York Boulevard where the edges of Glendale, Eagle Rock and Glassell Park converge, my pal spotted the crossroad cafe in a small, slightly bruised old strip mall. Apart from the soggy chatter of a washer in a Laundromat, the area was oddly quiet. On opening Polka’s door, I was surprised to find the dining room hummed like a banquet with every seat taken — a perfect place for Father’s Day if you can get a seat.
4112 Verdugo Road, Los Angeles
Lunch, dinner; closed Mon., Tues.
We had to turn sideways to thread through the narrow paths between tables and reach the rear of the restaurant where a little girl had given up her seat for us. Usually, I’m appalled by tight squeezes in restaurants but there was something about Polka that made rubbing shoulders feel like snuggling with brothers.
Standing by our table, rolling big brown eyes that were cuter than a teddy bear’s, the little girl faced my pal and asked, "Do you play chess?" Then they talked about many things, from kings to cabbage. She recited a poem and sang something from “The Wizard of Oz.” Just as I was feeling neglected, she turned and showed me a page from her coloring book; it had unique markings outside the lines. "You draw your own conclusions," I said, trying to be smarter. She smiled and excused herself to greet some new customers. I missed her the moment she left.
Usually, children in restaurants do nothing but yammer to go to the bathroom, stare at me without a word, or put French fries I’ve paid for into their milk. Not Basia, who is 6 years old and the daughter of Polka’s owners, Katherine and Andrew Dabrowski. She takes her job seriously. She’s Polka’s maitre d’ little girl.
Dad Andrew, who is both waiter and cashier, recommended and served to me the classic Polish hunter’s stew. In the amply portioned platter ($15.95), a tangled web of perfectly stewed sauerkraut — buttery with meat stock — was liberally studded with chunks of pork, sausage and mushrooms. All of the flavors mingled after a slow bake like they were meant for each other. Delicious. I saved half to take home. Reheated the next day, it tasted even better.
For $11.99, my pal savored smoked Polish kielbasa sausage. The large hot dog-textured link was surrounded by a colorful array of hot veggies.
Mother Katherine, serving as executive chef, waiter and bus-girl, muscling platters to and fro, made time to exchange pleasantries with a full house of about 40 regulars who are like an extended family. In passing, hearing my sniffles, she raced to the kitchen and returned with hot tea with lemon and honey. Amazing: an untried guest being treated like part of a family reunion.
For a rare moment in my restaurant-going career, I was starting to like — and maybe need — being close to people.
While many restaurants are good for fine dining, friendship observing, promise keeping, business dealing and bet settling, they’re not so good at fostering that family feeling. Visiting Polka was like being invited into a neighbor’s home for dinner. Next time, I’ll bring flowers.