Back to my roots: Polish dining at Café Maja

I grew up in Brighton Park in Chicago. Brighton Park has a large Polish population and was, at one point, the largest settlement of Poles in Chicago. White flight has made Poles move out of the city in large numbers toward the suburbs, but when I was a kid, the shops down on Archer Avenue all had Polish signs. A big part of my growing up was going to the Polish delis and Polish restaurants.

Chicago is an important part of the Polish diaspora. But so is London. Like Chicago, London has some big Polish areas, especially Acton. Hammersmith is close to Acton, so there is a presence of Polish immigrants in Poland, as well. The other thing about Hammersmith is that the Polish Social & Cultural Association (or Polski Ośrodek Społeczno-Kulturalny) acts as a hub for British Poles or Polish immigrants. It’s a large building in Hammersmith that houses a gallery, two restaurants, and various offices of Polish institutions and bodies.

This afternoon, I went to the Café Maja for lunch this afternoon. It was crowded, as I think we hit the after-church crowd. Sundays are a huge social day for Polish Catholics. After church, families and friends often will make their way to a local deli or restaurant to eat Polish food, talk, gossip, and rest before another busy work week.

Café Maja’s entrance is on the side of the cultural association’s building. You walk into a really casual diner-style dining room. The menu is written on chalkboards behind the counter, and today’s offerings were familiar items: pierogi, Polish sausage, veal cutlet, borscht.

I ordered the grilled Polish sausage that came with two, perfect scoops of mashed potatoes. I also ordered a side of sauerkraut. My partner got the chicken cutlet with potatoes, and he ordered a side of red cabbage. We also ordered a plate of meat pierogi for the table as a starter.

While waiting for my food, I looked around the dining room, and indulged in some people watching, a favourite sport of mine. I saw tables with loud, raucous people, laughing and talking. Two old nuns were sitting at table near the counter. They were eating the tripe soup. The table next to me had some cinephiles who were talking about movies. An older woman behind me was holding court, lecturing her dining companions about etiquette (Emily Post angrily scolded one of her friends to not leave her elbows on the table)

Our food came, the plates crowding our plates. My sausage was scored, blistered and browned, with caramalized onions. The potatoes were perfect scoops, sprinkled with frizzy dill fronds. My partner’s cutlet was flat and nearly the size of the plate. It was golden and crispy, puffy. The pierogi came with little bits of bacon (it would’ve been nice if they came with soured cream or breadcrumbs)

The food was good and comforting, like Polish food is supposed to be. London has a few Polish haute cuisine restaurants, and while they’re good, I can never bring myself to pay lot for fancy, fussy Polish food. Polish food is meant to be hearty and simple and familiar. It’s the kind of food eaten on a cold, wintery day – or if you had a bad day. It’s not healthy food, and scanning the room, I probably saw a lot of hypertension and high cholesterol, but the draw of this kind of food is undeniable.

When you finish a Polish meal, you should be groaning a bit getting, and you should be needing a good stretch, as if the eating was a physically taxing exercise. A large Polish meal also requires that you walk home when you’re done, preferably a long distance, 30 minutes at least.