“Would you like some coffee?” the dark-haired waitress asks in a noticeable Polish accent. It’s eight o’clock at night, but at Mabenka bottomless cups of coffee are still in full swing. Besides the constant service keeping us caffeinated and happy, though, Mabenka doesn’t much resemble the all-American diner. There are no shiny steel countertops in sight, and the color scheme could be best described as “toothpaste.” Odd collections of wooden implements dangle on the walls, joined by Native American dolls staring out from under a forest of shiny plastic Christmas trees hanging from the ceiling. Serious kitsch.
On a Thursday, the only other party in Mabenka is a group of twelve celebrating Grandma’s birthday. The restaurant is mostly empty, but we are seated only two feet from them. “More coffee?” asks the waitress again suddenly. No one has taken more than a few sips, but we acquiesce to the top-off anyway. We then attempt to take charge of the confusing situation by ordering some pierogies for an appetizer, pointing to the menu–which is written largely in Polish–to make clear what we want. She listens to us patiently, only to reply, “Oh, no, I am not the waitress. I will get her for you.”
After navigating this strict hierarchy, we receive our order of pierogies. This variation of dumpling is a staple of Eastern European fare, and if we are to believe Mabenka’s claim that it is “the South Side’s best Polish food,” the restaurant will have to withstand the pierogi test.
They arrive strewn liberally with bacon bits, accompanied with a dollop of sour cream. The mashed potato and cheese pierogi is soft, pillowy, and addictive. The other type is labeled simply “meat,” and showcases the pleasantly chewy dough more than the potato version. We save the sauerkraut variation for next time.
Hopped up on caffeine, we order soups and outrageously large plates of food. The mushroom soup and borscht are both standouts, especially in comparison to the chicken noodle soup, which appears to be entirely lacking chicken. The star of the evening is certainly the potato, which comes in more variations than any of us could have imagined: potato dumplings, boiled potato, potato pancakes, and even one giant potato-dough blob stuffed with meat.
Mabenka is absolutely not suitable for vegetarians: bacon bits are as ubiquitous as salt, the sauerkraut is lackluster, and the side salad, while fresh, is uninspiring. For carnivores, though, Mabenka overflows with options: roast beef, tongue, tripe, and at least four kinds of sausage all impress.
The story of legendary Mabenka is about more than just the food. Their website reads, “Celebrity Chef Krzysztof Returns by Popular Demand.” A little poking around reveals that one of the cooks in this unassuming South Side location was once the personal chef of Pope John Paul II. Our waitress can give us no thrilling story of his arrival: “I don’t know, I think he just came and…applied for a job. That was four or five years ago. The restaurant has been here for twenty years, and we have old customers, we have new customers. I don’t know if people come because of him or not.” They certainly have not come out tonight. Mabenka’s banquet hall is empty during our meal, but on Wednesday nights the restaurant hosts a polka night with their “very own polka band!”
After turning down one last offer of coffee, we pack up our leftovers and manage–with some difficulty–to stand up, weighed down by too much boiled starch and protein. While navigating our way out the door, a friend pauses and says in disbelief, “Are those deer hooves?” There, right beside the door, was a coat rack made of, yes, deer hooves. Too much? Perhaps, but at least it’s not boring. Best Polish food on the South Side? Could be. A worthy stop on the journey to discover old-fashioned Chicago? Without a doubt.
Mabenka, 7844 S. Cicero Ave. Monday-Thursday, 7:30am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7:30am-10pm. (708)423-7679. mabenka.com