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Search for the perfect pierogi takes The Taco Stand to the motherland

Steak tartare, uncooked ground beef, is served with diced onions and relish, topped with a raw egg. (Photos by Jon Nowacki / jnowacki@duluthnews.com)

My friend and I couldn't have been sitting at the bar for more than five minutes when three beautiful young Polish women bellied up next to us.

After ordering tall beers, next up for the ladies was beef "tartare," a raw hamburger dish with an egg yolk delicately placed on top for good measure. Most women I know would about vomit just from the sight of it, but not here.

They dug right in.

What a country.

News Tribune sports writer "Taco" Jon Nowacki (left) and friend Brian "Bass" Safranski enjoyed a winter trip to Poland.From Minnesota to Krakow, Poland

My oldest brother, Brian, and his wife, Tammey, are well traveled in Europe, and Krakow is one of their favorites. The medieval capital of Poland features opulent buildings and grandiose churches around every corner, including Pope John Paul II's St. Florian's Church, and it's anchored by Wawel Castle on the banks of the Vistula River. It's old-school splendor at its finest.

Brian and Tammey invited us to celebrate his 60th birthday in February. We had 12 in our group. We arrived the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday. The first task was finding our apartment — they call them apartments, not hotels — no small task for people with no clue.

While my friend, nicknamed "Bass," and I walked around the famed Market Square that served as the cornerstone of the trip, I didn't mind being lost. I was just happy to be there. Most people spoke English quite well and were happy to help, even if good directions often got lost in translation, but knowing about five Polish words didn't hurt ("piwo" and "dziekuje" being most important — truth be told, the Poles spoke better English than the English. If you don't believe me, go there).

Growing up in Stephen, Minn., I thought half the world was Polish. Later, I quickly realized that's not the case, so it was cool to see areas like "Szczepanski Square" and other names I'm familiar with back home. There's a storied culture there, a long history that is impossible to snuff out, and believe it or not, there is a method to the madness of the language. Growing up with it, for Poles and non-Poles alike, you pick up on it.

Pierogis are the main course at Pierogi 24h, which boils them up fast-food style.The Super Bowl didn't start until 12:30 a.m. their time, so after getting settled into our apartment, we adjusted our schedules accordingly. I'm a sports guy, and I wasn't going to miss the Super Bowl. We took a power nap so we could watch the big game.

Despite the late starting time, we found the "Bulldog Bar" had the game on and was hopping. Interestingly, across the square was a place called "Sioux Restaurant," making this corner, at least, look like the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The Bulldog Bar was packed with Brits, Irish, Poles and Americans (well, at least two), all watching the game together, or singing karaoke in the adjoining room, The place was still going strong when we left about 5 a.m. Crazy.

While watching the game, we befriended Polish brothers who showed us a nearby restaurant featuring the Polish food I was already well versed on and had been longing for: the pierogi.

The place was called Pierogi 24h, and that appeared to be all they did. Normally considered a side dish, at this place, it was the main course. You couldn't help but think of the old Saturday Night Live skit based on Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern ("cheeseburger cheeseburger"), or Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi." This was fast-food pierogi.

Friends traveled to Poland with Brian and Tammey Nowacki to celebrate Brian's 60th birthday. Jon Nowacki appears front right.These wonderful pasta creations can be filled with anything, but the most popular filling based on my experience is mashed potatoes and cheese. Boil and pan fry, just to get a little crispiness, then add butter, sour cream and bacon bits, as I was renowned for back in my after-bar-party days, and you're in Polish heaven. I was on to something. I was a popular guy.

I'm sure you could have your pierogi any way you wanted at this place, but ours were just boiled. At 5 in the morning, I wasn't complaining, and I certainly wasn't going to argue with the Pierogi maker doing the cooking.

When in Rome ...

I'll never forget the first time I had a pierogi. I thought they were the best things ever. It was on a pilgrimage two hours north to Winnipeg, Manitoba, for Pope John Paul II's visit in 1984. I remember my mother saying she had never seen my dad so happy as when the world elected its first Polish pope, to the point he came home in tears. Pope John meant a lot to many people, but to Poles, he meant everything. He's still a big part of Krakow to this day, with banners of him around town. Even at nighttime hours, I'd see churches open, come as you are. It's a big part of Polish life.

Bigos, Polish Hunter's StewThere really was nothing I didn't like about this trip other than the actual travel. Big airports are a drag, and if you ever have to go through customs — believe me — get a seat toward the front of the plane and you can thank me for the saved headache later. My boss — whom I make a point to rip on in every Taco Stand — after all, he's easy material — said, "Why Poland in February?" I say, why not?

Cost, including our apartment, was just over $700, and you get treated like a king for cheap once you're there. Everything I ate was good, with the people clearly taking pride in their work. Funny, I remember getting stuffed only once — part of a ridiculously good night of Polish music and dancing that was a highlight of the trip — yet just about everyone was slim and in shape. The entire trip, I saw only one health club. What's that say?

High temps were generally in the 40s; the day we left was in the 50s and sunny, further proof in my mind that Minnesotans live in a place that shouldn't be inhabited. I can't wait to go again. One week wasn't enough.

There's a reason Brits love it as much as they do. For them, it's a fun and inexpensive vacation, and Krakow is arguably the most preserved city in all of Europe. My brother said the airport has more than doubled since he first came, not long after the fall of communism.

Which brings me back to tartare.

A stuffed meat dish from No7 Restaurant in Krakow.The dish was offered at a little Polish chain called "Pijalnia Wodki i Piwa," i.e. vodka and beer, and we called it "shots and snacks." It was a good meeting place with its large front windows facing the street, while many of Krakow's coolest bars are hidden underground, built out of old wine cellars.

Pijalnia was downright cheap and had a good vibe, with two locations near Krakow's famed Market Square. The walls are decorated in newspapers and old Soviet propaganda, and old tube TVs are in the corners. It's mocking the country's communist past. Yeah, it happened, and now we're celebrating the fact it's over.

The specialty shots were mixed right in front of us. No premade garbage. There was at least a dozen to choose from, including standards based on the Long Island Tea and Sex on the Beach, but also the "Borewicz," which included banana syrup. I had to have one or six of those, as that's a popular name back home, albeit spelled slightly different. Each shot was about $1.50 American; the beer, a little more, the snacks, not even $3.

Soup was common throughout the streets of Krakow and often included eggs. My friend Bass will try anything, and shortly after those three Polish beauties ordered tartare, he had to try it himself.

"It's different," Bass said after digging in. "There's definitely a mental hurdle to overcome."

I asked if he liked it, and he shook one of his hands sideways and said, "aaaah," as in, it's OK, but I'm not exactly sure. The jury is still out. I tried a little myself. You mix it with chopped onions, and it's tolerable, but it certainly wasn't for me, but again, that's largely because of the mental aspect of it. We're programmed in America not to eat anything raw, especially when it comes to meat.

The Poles take great pride in their desserts. This tasty creation was bursting with flavor and likely calories as well.We left Pijalnia and made our way across Market Square. We eventually stopped in at the other Pijalnia, closer to our apartment, and ordered something to drink. Bass was still hungry and ordered something to eat, though I didn't hear exactly what.

When it came out, I about fell to the floor. It was tartare.

I'm like, "Bass, I didn't think you liked it!!!???"

He nodded and said, "It grows on you."

I couldn't argue. As they say, when in Rome ...

Jon “Taco” Nowacki covers sports for the News Tribune but likes to occasionally dabble in the culinary world, especially when work pays for it. While not picky, Nowacki prefers anything this side of lettuce to be cooked, at least a little bit. He can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5305.

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