Until the late 1950’s, Detroit, Michigan was the fourth largest city in the United States. During the first part of the twentieth century, immigrants flooded the city for the jobs provided by the automotive industry. In the city of Hamtramck, which is completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, Polish immigrants settled and comprised 90% of the population until the early 1970’s. Currently about 20% of the city’s population of 20,000 are Polish. Interestingly, Hamtramck has a foreign born population of about 41% making it Michigan’s most internationally diverse city.
During a visit to Detroit for a family wedding in June, 2009 we went to Hamtramck for dinner at one of the city’s landmark Polish restaurants. The Polish Village Cafe is located in an older neighborhood a couple of blocks off the beaten path. In fact, if there wasn’t a sign hanging in front of the building, you would think it was someone’s home. You enter at the street level and go down a flight of stairs into another time and place. The restaurant and bar is located in the basement of this brick home and is enchanting. There are paper lanterns hanging throughout the cozy interior and a kitchen in the back where we could see several women bustling around the stoves.
The dark wood bar is inviting with a beautiful backbar. Large arched alcoves house stained glass panes with backlighting that just draw you over for a seat. The bartender suggested a Polish beer called Zywiec, which is a lager from a brewery that belonged to the Hapsburg family before WWII. It was refreshing after a long day at the Detroit Zoo.
We had no reservations (I don’t think they take them) but were seated quickly, even though it was right at 7 pm. I had seen Pimm’s no.1 on the bar and asked the server if the bartender could make a Pimm’s Cup for me. It was one of my business partner Joe’s favorite drinks years ago and I wanted to try it. She hustled off and came back asking what was in it. I couldn’t remember and just told her that if the bartender didn’t know how to make it I would take another beer. The server came back briskly and told me that she had asked the bartender to make me whatever she wanted and I would take it. She was so friendly about it I said OK – and received a whiskey sour a couple of minutes later. Not a Pimm’s Cup but just fine.
On to the menu. And what a menu – Goladki (Stuffed Cabbage), Czarnina (Duck Blood Soup – I didn’t ask), City Chicken and Dill Pickle Soup to name a few of the items. I chose the Dill Pickle Soup and City Chicken. The soup was really tasty, with diced potatoes, carrots, and small slivers of dill pickle in a creamy broth.
The City Chicken was also tasty, but there was no chicken to be found. I asked the server what was it was made of and she said “Not chicken” and went to the next table. I was brave and dug in. It was actually large cubes of pork on wooden skewers, breaded and deep fried. The entree came with mashed potatoes and green beans as sides and they were nicely done as well – best described as home style. My wife had a potato pancakes and pierogi sampler and was pretty happy with the sweet cheese filled pierogi. Around the table my family was eating kielbasa, kraut, goulash, garlic chicken and more pierogi.
It was really a unique experience and such an interesting change from a chain restaurant. I can’t tell you if the food is authentic Polish, but I can tell you the restaurant is an authentic piece of the past that is still going strong in Hamtramck. To top it off, the dinners were about $7. We will definitely go back when we visit again.
The Polish Village Cafe is at 2990 Yemans St, Hamtramck, MI 48212. No website and they don’t take credit cards, so hit the ATM before you go. Best time is evidently mid-week as they seem to be a local favorite.