By Dorothy Puch Lillig
From Texas-sized turkey legs to deep-fried Oreos to roasted corn on the cob, everyone has their favorite food at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This year, you can add deep-fried cabbage rolls to your must-try list.
For their fifth year at RodeoHouston, the Spring Branch District’s Polonia Restaurant decided to add deep-fried “gołąbki,” or cabbage rolls, to their menu. Try them along with kielbasa (Polish sausage) on a stick or pierogi (crescent-shaped dumplings filled with potato and cheese, meat or sauerkraut and mushrooms), as well as a long list of other Polish favorites.
While he probably never imagined he would be deep-frying and putting them on sticks, it’s the food of his home country Poland that led owner Andrzej Szpak (pronounced “Shpock”) to pur-sue opening the Polish Food Store and later Polonia restaurant, said his wife and business part-ner, Sharon Szpak.
“He missed his food,” said Szpak of her husband, who immigrated to Houston 20 years ago. Be-fore opening their Polish Food Store at Blalock and Campbell in 2003, the Szpaks took a trip to Chicago, where there is an extensive Polish immigrant population, as well as stores and restau-rants offering up authentic Polish food. After a few failed attempts to actually locate the Polish neighborhood in Chicago, they finally found their way into a Polish deli, and the smells brought Andrzej (Polish for “Andrew”) back home. He immediately wanted to bring those foods back to his new home, Houston.
So, after buying up items in Chicago and contacting the distributors listed on the packages, the Polish Food Store opened in a 1,200-square-foot space near Our Lady of Częstochowa Roman Catholic Parish, which ministers to Polish immigrants in Houston.
Even with the Polish church nearby, Sharon Szpak wasn’t sure how the business would do but, “within two months, we outgrew the space,” she said, and soon Andrzej set his sights on a for-mer Mexican restaurant space a few doors down for a Polish restaurant.
At first, Szpak said, she wasn’t so sure about opening a restaurant in addition to the store. “The restaurant business is tough,” she said. A decade later, though, they were moving the store and restaurant to a 5,000-square-foot space at 1780 Blalock Rd., which they completely renovated and where they remain today.
Meanwhile, for 20 straight days a year at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, they serve up their Polish fare in a 20-foot by 20-foot wooden booth that Szpak describes as being put to-gether “like Lincoln Logs” by a Polish friend. “He didn’t use a single nail,” she said. Their friend is a Góral, or “Highlander,” from the town Zakopane in the southern part of Poland at the base of the Tatras Mountains, where woodworking is an art, most visible in architecture but also found in furniture and other objects. The Zakopane-style booth fits in well at the rodeo.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity for our business,” Szpak said of RodeoHouston. It took four years of applying before they were finally accepted to the rodeo, but she said people now find them at the rodeo each year to get their Polish food fix. They also follow them back to Spring Branch. In fact, she said, they’ve had to add fried Polish-style bacon (boczek) to their restaurant menu because rodeo customers come looking for the extra-thick cuts. “But it’s not on a stick at the restaurant,” she laughed.
While they enjoy the exposure at the rodeo, “the hours are killer,” Szpak. They start their day about 6 a.m. at the restaurant/store location, loading up on supplies for the booth. They set up at the rodeo grounds by 9 a.m., open up shop at 10 a.m. and are there until 11 p.m. or midnight most nights. Everything is cooked on site as the wooden booth, located at J500 in front of the NRG Center, has a full kitchen.
Despite the long days — and nights — working the rodeo booth, Szpak said they plan to be at the rodeo in 2019. But, of course, you don’t have to wait for rodeo time to get your Polish food fix. Just stop by the restaurant and store in the Spring Branch District, where fried Polish-style bacon is always on the menu.
Visit www.poloniarestaurant.com for more information.