The little restaurant and deli in Portland serves Polish dishes with a touch of quirkiness.
In all the years I’ve lived in Portland, I’ve never been to Bogusha’s Polish Restaurant & Deli on Stevens Avenue, even though I’ve driven by it a hundred times. Like most Portlanders, I’ve been curious about the little house that looks like a cross between a neighborhood cafe and a corner store.
People I know who have been there for lunch have told me it’s a little like going to grandma’s house. Service is very informal, and the owner – a Polish immigrant who has lived here for years – dishes up food to order on plates that look like they could have come out of your grandmother’s knickknack hutch. That about sums it up, although I will do you a favor and warn you about the mannequin wearing a traditional Polish costume that greets you as you walk in. I wasn’t expecting her, she startled me.
Whenever I think of Polish food I think about the trip I took to Poland when I was a young journalist, in the days before 9/11 tightened security in airports and before Mikhail Gorbachev made “glasnost” and “perestroika” part of our vocabularies. It was about three years before the communist government crumbled. I was actually nervous about having a copy of Rolling Stone magazine on me when I went through airport security because the intimate pat-downs and eagle-eyed scrutiny our group received were far from the norm. (But that was nothing compared with seeing a flight attendant hammer the door to our ancient plane shut with her shoe.)
At that time, in the mid-1980s, simply taking a stroll down the street in Warsaw, Gdansk and Gdynia meant feeling like you’d smoked a pack of cigarettes, because there were no pollution controls on cars. Stores either stood empty because they had nothing to sell, or lines stretched down the street with all the potential customers vying for a few pairs of shoes.
My colleagues and I had been looking forward to trying some authentic Polish food, but even the fare at our hotel – nice by the standards back then – was a disappointment, featuring tough meat and extremely bland cabbage and potatoes. Our server asked us to pay him under the table in American dollars instead of Polish zlotys, and we happily complied.
The best meal came from our academic hosts and was, we assumed, paid for by the state. We enjoyed the traditional dishes, but felt guilty about it because it was so clear that ordinary citizens were getting by on far less.
So when I walked into Bogusha’s I was looking for that authentic experience I didn’t get way back when. I wanted to sample the kind of food the average person might enjoy. The menu offers 13 dishes in lunch- and dinner-sized portions, along with soups and sandwiches. All of the lunch items are under $10. A plate of haluszki – noodles tossed with sauerkraut, kielbasa and a variety of meats – is just $6, as is the meat crepe, or krokiet, served with a cup of borsch.
The special on the day I visited was pork schnitzel with potatoes and cabbage, but I chose the $9.50 Polish Platter. It was way too much food for lunch, but included samplings of four popular Polish dishes. There were two pierogi (Polish dumplings), one with a cabbage filling and another filled with cheese and potato. The dumplings had been steamed and then sauteed in a pan until lightly browned, and they were a nice contrast to all the cabbage on the plate (yes, even though one of them contained cabbage).
Also on the plate was a big piece of kielbasa and golabki, a cabbage leaf stuffed with rice and beef and covered in a tomato-based sauce. Finally, there was a serving of bigos, or the traditional hunter’s stew, which wasn’t really a stew but a mess of cabbage and tangy sauerkraut tossed together with bits of kielbasa and ham. It was delicious.
Overall, the food was interesting, but not exciting – there’s only so much you can do with cabbage and smoked meats. It did feel like the kind of lunch your grandmother or favorite aunt would prepare for you, especially on a cold winter’s day.
Bogusha’s is worth checking out, but only if you’re the kind of person who likes quirkiness and can forgive a place for not being a hipster hangout. The service is friendly but I was never offered anything to drink – not even a glass of water. I felt like if I wanted something, I would have to get up and get it myself, just like at home. (The restaurant does not serve liquor, but customers can bring their own beer and wine.)
Before the owner retreated to the kitchen in the back to make my lunch, she turned on the TV in the dining room to a soap opera and turned up the volume. I thought maybe at first she felt sorry for me, a single woman dining alone, and figured I would want the “company” of TV. Then later, I caught her glued to previews for “The Talk” and realized the TV was probably for her benefit, not mine.
There are just four small tables at Bogusha’s. While your lunch is being prepared, scope out the little store/deli within the restaurant. There are all kinds of tinned items, from smoked herring to goose pate, and other foods imported from Poland.
WHERE: 825 Stevens Ave., Portland, 878-9618
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed Sundays
WAIT: 10-15 minutes.
OUTDOOR SEATING: Yes, one small table.
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: No.