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The Greatest Milk Bars in Krakow, Poland

Krakow runs on milk bars. These no-fuss canteens serve inexpensive but filling meals that style like Babcia’s home—large, honking dessert and all—they usually maintain a deep, nostalgic place in Poland’s nationwide psyche. Whereas the nation’s meals scene has been sprinting within the wrong way of hearty staples like żurek soup, schabowy pork cutlets, and pierogi ruskie (extra on these later), milk bars have remained steadfast, soul-soothing, and as reliably satiating as ever. 

In fashionable Poland, milk bars (“bar mleczny” in Polish) seem to be an anachronism doomed to die out. Polish culinary faculty graduates aren’t clamoring to work at canteens, and the bars’ getting older employees are retiring in droves. Even when the institutions had been to outlive, would they not be Brooklynized into kitschy brunch eating places or became a franchise by one more vulture fund?

Curious (and hungry), I went to Krakow to search out out what the long run holds for these treasured eating places. That’s how I met Michał Turecki. Turecki is a born-and-raised Cracovian meals information, author, and prepare dinner who—like many Poles—can hint life’s milestones again to take advantage of bars. On a cloudy-turned-sunny April morning, I met him exterior Bar Centralny. Two minutes into the dialog, he was already drifting into misty-eyed nostalgia: When his grandmother handed away seven years in the past, he went straight to close by Bar Północny to cry over a plate of pierogi ruskie as a result of they reminded him of those she used to make.

Milk bars’ emotional connection has loads to do with historical past, and the truth that they have been round for generations. Whereas most affiliate one of these eating with post-World Battle II communism, it in reality predates the warfare. Turecki explains that milk bars grew in recognition within the Nineteen Fifties, when getting cheap meals to the individuals was essential because the nation handled post-war destruction, social unrest, political uncertainty, and a litany of financial challenges. Turecki estimates there have been as soon as some 70,000 milk bars throughout the nation.      

One cause milk bars have survived is authorities subsidies, which make $3 żurek with kielbasa and $2 pierogi potential immediately. In an period when meals insecurity is on the rise, it’s in Poland’s nationwide curiosity to have a nourishing (in each sense of the phrase) different to ultra-processed calorie bombs and fast-food chains. And at milk bars, you may financial institution on the sort of meal a Polish mom or grandmother would serve—partly as a result of that’s who’s predominantly within the kitchen. These institutions, then, double as a supply of culinary dignity to those that would in any other case not be capable to afford to eat effectively. Some patrons even carry containers to inventory their fridges and cabinets. 

It’s no secret that almost all bar mleczny supply what’s mainly a copy-paste menu of the classics. No one’s there for selection or aesthetically pleasing shows ready by stagiers shifting grains of kasha round simply so with a pair of tweezers. Rave opinions of milk bars usually have extra to do with sentimental worth than style, although Turecki insists that high quality does fluctuate relying on the prepare dinner. 

However many cooks are nearing retirement. Turecki says he’s “terrified” about the way forward for milk bars. Past the meager salaries, the ever-dwindling pot of public cash is one other looming nail within the coffin. “Politicians assume the principle group utilizing the milk bars are individuals with meals stamps,” he says. “When truly, you may meet individuals there from nearly each social group, from the poorest to college students, and vacationers.”

Konrad Piwowarczyk, who additionally joined me on my milk bar crawl, shares Turcecki’s sentiment. Piwowarczyk is a younger, gregarious, wildly educated meals and vodka information with Scrumptious Poland. “They may be the kind of enterprise that can section out with time,” he says. 

However they will not go down and not using a combat. The closure of a variety of standard milk bars in current weeks and months struck an alarming chord. Additional, native elections are on the horizon in Krakow and funding milk bars has turn into a political soccer, drawing consideration to the difficulty. 

Then there’s the function of tourism. Krakow, with its UNESCO-protected previous city, is a vacationer magnet, and guests are charmed by the sort of old-timey, conventional eating milk bars present. As extra middle- and upper-class Poles abandon milk bars for worldwide choices popping up across the metropolis, it stays to be seen whether or not these enduring institutions will turn into a uncommon overtourism success story. 

I couldn’t wait to be a vacationer myself: Exploring the town’s milk bars is a superb method to expertise the native tradition and meet Cracovians from all walks of life. Armed with lists offered by Turecki and Piwowarczyk (and a Reddit web page or two), I set off on an epic tour of 13 milk bars throughout the town. Right here’s a style of my findings. 

Raphael Olivier

It’s breakfast time, so I get bułka z pastą jajeczną i kakao, half a bread roll with chopped hard-boiled eggs, mayo, and onions unfold throughout. It comes with a piping-hot cup of cocoa, a much less off-putting mixture than it sounds. (Cocoa turned a milk bar breakfast staple because of espresso shortages, based on Turecki.)     

I adore it in right here: the white marble tables, maroon chairs, and unusually ornate chandelier twinkling over all of it. We’re in Nowa Huta, actually the “new metal mill,” the place a towering statue of Lenin as soon as stood. The realm was designed within the Nineteen Fifties because the mannequin communist neighborhood. Communism is lengthy gone, however communist-era Centralny stays. 

Raphael Olivier

That is the place Turecki cried over these pierogi ruskie, describing the expertise as “metaphysical.” Filled with twaróg (smoky cow’s cheese) and sprinkled with chopped fried bacon, they’re all the things I would like in a pierogi––gentle, barely chewy, and tangy from the cheese.  

An apart: Many presume “ruskie” pertains to Russia, and a few have taken to calling the dish pierogi ukraiński in protest. However “ruskie” is definitely derived from “Rus,” in reference to the historic area of Purple Ruthenia, which now straddles western Ukraine and southeastern Poland. 

Turecki will get the ⁠kluski leniwe, or “lazy” dumplings. These are primarily pasta strips served with melted butter, a sprinkling of breadcrumbs, and sugar. Turecki explains that the beneficiant use of sugar in milk bars dates again to post-war shortages of nearly all the things however sugar. “There was a saying: sugar makes you stronger.”

Raphael Olivier

Bieńczyce’s is understood for its soups, particularly the thick and flavorful krupnik brimming with barley, carrots, celery, onions, and potatoes. The bitter rye soup referred to as żurek can be standard, made hearty by potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and sausage. It’s out there at each milk bar, however right here it’s “identical to it presupposed to be,” Turecki says, “correctly bitter with good-quality sausage.”

Marble tables are bunched collectively to make room for the throngs of scholars, younger professionals, and retirees queuing up on the doorway at this informal spot. I seize a seat whereas Turecki takes care of the order. What arrives is each candy and savory: kopytka z masłem are hoof-shaped dumplings produced from potato-based dough that come drizzled with melted butter. Turecki calls these “Polish gnocchi” for his or her pillowy texture. Then, it’s naleśniki z jabłkami,  pancakes with a tart apple filling. A far cry out of your fluffy American pancakes, we’re speaking burrito-size blintzes coated in an avalanche of powdered sugar. (Keep in mind, sugar makes you robust.)

Bar Mleczny Uniwersytecki

Raphael Olivier

Uniwersytecki, actually “College,” is a pupil lunch stalwart, however individuals of all ages flock right here for placki ziemniaczane z sosem, potato pancakes with gravy. Whereas most meat eaters spring for hunter’s sauce (shallots, mushrooms, butter, demi-glace), my vegetarian sensibilities level me to a steamy mushroom gravy with gentle porcini mushrooms swimming within the cloudy glaze.

Raphael Olivier

We pop into this hole-in-the-wall for a fast bowl of żurek, that bitter rye soup. It’s lukewarm and has a salty, meaty taste that jogs my memory of shrink-wrapped American hotdogs. I don’t adore it, however I’m clearly within the minority judging by the road trailing out onto the sidewalk. 

Krakus, close to the Jewish Ghetto Memorial and Oskar Schindler’s manufacturing facility, is among the few milk bars with an English menu on the counter. I look over it whereas Turecki helps a gaggle of Spanish vacationers talk their order. 

Earlier than I do know it, I’m tucking into a superb bowl of barszcz czerwony z uszkami, scorching and tangy beet soup with small mushroom-filled dumplings. The dish is standard on Christmas Eve (Wigilia), so it’s a uncommon deal with to be having it out of season. I observe it up with racuchy z jabłkami, pancakes with a slight pan-fried crunch that ooze apple compote with each chunk. 

Jutrzenka is tucked right into a group block throughout from a tree-covered park. The sometimes lengthy menu is plastered with three Pepsi logos, a vestige of the joy for western merchandise when communism fell. 

It’s breakfast, so time for one more eggy bread roll. Right here you get the opposite half of the roll, so you may eat it like a sandwich. The egg, mayo, and onion combine comes collectively extra like a salad than one congealed paste. With a shake of contemporary pepper, it’s good to go.

Raphael Olivier

Targowy, on a large communist-era boulevard, feels homey with laminate mock-wood flooring and matching tan chairs and tables, a vibe that carries by to a menu of old-school classics like kotlet schabowy, bigos (hunter’s stew with chopped meat, sauerkraut, and contemporary cabbage), and—as at all times—pierogi ruskie. 

Piwowarczyk orders us a plate of naleśniki z serem, twaróg cheese-stuffed pancakes, that are often dessert. These are what a Polish dessert “must be,” based on him––candy however not overpoweringly so.

Raphael Olivier

Temidą is the one true bar mleczny in Krakow’s previous city, which suggests it’s busier and pricier than the others on the listing. However who am I to complain about an $8 pork cutlet? The canteen is price a cease for its interiors alone, low-vaulted ceilings paying homage to a medieval palace entrance. However the spirit of simplicity stays in dishes like kluski śląskie (Silesian dumplings) served on a plastic lunch tray. These deliciously glutinous intestine bombs swimming in a creamy mushroom sauce have a refined potato taste and a barely chewy, dense consistency because of the potato starch.

Smakosz peeks by a lush dwelling wall of greenery (no less than throughout the summer season). Turecki suggests a comfortable bowl of rosół, Polish rooster soup with a crystal-clear broth; 

noodles like strands of shredded paper; and contemporary greens like carrots, celery, and onions. It jogs my memory of what my grandmother would make me as a child after I was underneath the climate; I’m not stunned to study it’s Poland’s pure treatment for colds and flu, too.

Bar Mleczny Pod Filarkami

Raphael Olivier

Filarkami, straddling the previous city and Kazimierz, looks like a country tavern with its faux-brick partitions and wood tables. However the blue plastic trays transport me again to canteen land. Piwowarczyk goes for the kotlet schabowy, a breaded and fried boneless pork cutlet that’s Poland’s reply to wiener schnitzel. “It’s crispy and never too dry—with a little bit of moisture but not overly oily,” he says. It comes with an earthy-smelling grated beet salad that wasn’t what he truly ordered. However like Seinfeld and the Soup Nazi, it’s greatest to keep away from confrontation when coping with the no-nonsense milk bar women. 

In the meantime, I devour my kasha coated in one more creamy mushroom sauce that shares the plate with a special beet salad enriched with butter and cream and wash all of it down with a mug of tangy kefir. The beet-kefir combo transports me immediately to the Polish countryside.

Raphael Olivier

Occupying the underside flooring of a blocky constructing with graffiti between the window and entrance, Filsak feels about as removed from 2024 as you may get. The trattoria-style red-and-white checkered tablecloths brighten up the joint; so does the meals, which feels barely lighter. The pierogi ruskie aren’t overly doughy, which lets the refined cheese, potato, and black pepper filling be the star. I attempt some ogórki kiszone (pickles) on the aspect, they usually pack a tart, salty punch because of their brine in saltwater as a substitute of vinegar. Dessert comes subsequent: ryż z jabłkami, rice with apple, cinnamon, and candy cream. It isn’t making an attempt to win factors for presentation, but it surely’s surprisingly harmonious—the sweetness of the powdered sugar tempers the acid within the apples, and the grains of rice add textural curiosity.

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