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Venue Review: PJ’s Bistro

EUROTOPIA: Sample pleasures of Poland at PJ’s Bistro in Manitou
PJ’s Bistro
The Gazette

Don’t order the pierogi on your first trip to PJ’s Bistro. They are so damn light and fluffy and delicious that no matter how many times you go back, you’ll never order anything else.

You may think the fresh-cut fries drenched in goulash on the odd but delicious Polish-American menu sound intriguing. You may yearn for a taste of the fat, glimmering Polish sausage practically hanging off both sides of a plate that whisks just past your nose on the narrow patio. You may, after years of ordering the pierogi, decide that finally, this time, really, today, you will order something else — maybe the savory porkstuffed cabbage with tangy tomato gravy. You’ll swear to it. You’ll check the menu to make sure you pronounce the new dish right.

And a European server will arrive with a pad and say, “OK. What you have?” And you’ll order the pierogi.

There are several places in town where I can only ever order one thing (El Taco Rey: pork-avo burrito, smothered; Josh and John’s: Dutch chocolate in a cup.) When you know something is that good, why take a risk?

Fortunately, some days PJ’s runs out of pierogi and you are forced to branch out. At that point, you’ll encounter one of the most peculiar menus west of Interstate 25.

PJ’s calls itself a bistro, which originally meant an informal neighborhood restaurant in France, but stateside generally is a place that serves burgers with cloth napkins and calamari instead of onion rings. PJ’s is neither. It’s a variety show of American dinerisms and Poland’s greatest hits, served mostly — especially in summer — to a steady procession of Midwestern tourists foot-weary from looking at too many store-window dream catchers.

Located on the ground floor of the Victorian Barker House hotel, it has a prime people-watching patio that fills quickly on hot days. The service is excellent, and while the prices are a tad high, you won’t go away hungry.

The menu is diverse enough to include burgers, salads, bagel sandwiches and bigos — a Polish hunter’s stew spiked with a blend of meats, wild mushrooms, sauerkraut and cabbage.

Adventurous diners who order from the Iron Curtain side of the menu are rewarded with Golabaki ($8.95) — thick, tangy cabbage leaves baked around seasoned pork meatballs and decorated with a bright-red creamy tomato sauce — and a chunky Hungarian beef goulash ladled over potato pancakes.

The pancakes are a real work of art. Instead of little latkes, these giants almost obscure the plate. They look like the short stack at a truck stop and still manage to deliver the golden crisp outside and springy, glutinous inside that only potato pancakes can. Order them at breakfast for the ultimate hash brown alternative.

The domestic offerings don’t slouch, either. The burgers are big, hand-formed, wellcooked and loaded with freshcut toppings. In the absence of any cohesive restaurant theme, the reigning “everything” burger, the Royal ($8.75, lettuce, tomato, pineapple, cheese, fried onion, bacon and a fried egg), fits right in.

I dragged a young college student, back in her hometown after a year at an Ivy League School, to PJ’s. She looked at the burger, which was far too large to actually eat, and said, "It’s like a metaphor for . . . for. . . for . . . I don’t know what."

It’s like a metaphor for the whole place: mixed up, delicious and generous with the ground meat. And minutes later, it was gone.

Still, the real reason to come is the pierogi.

No culture has been able to escape the appeal of a little dumpling, whether a samosa, ravioli or spring roll. I suppose modern America’s version is the Hot Pocket. Eastern Europe has the pierogi.

At PJ's, the crimped, moonshaped sheets of pasta come stuffed with either mushrooms and cabbage, sauerkraut, fruit, "Russian," which is a light, slightly sweet mix of mashed potato and parsley, or a blend of beef and pork. (all are $7.50) Order a batch pan-fried, and they hit the table with spots of lovely golden-brown singe.

Cut them in half with a fork, dip them in sour cream and say hello to the pierogi you’ll be spending the rest of your life with.

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