Milk Bars sound real nice, but what are they? According to The New York Times,
“They were a staple of Communist Poland, punishingly drab restaurants in which the menu was scrawled on a handwritten board above the cash register, room-temperature yogurt drinks sat lined up on the counter, and waitresses in smocks served food on trays through a small window.”Alrighty! I like handwritten menus. And yogurt is good for digestion. Anything else we should know, fair reporter?
“...despite their utter lack of charm, they are beloved by people who grew up in Communist Poland and remain popular there today. They are so beloved, in fact, that they also endure in the traditionally Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.”Well golly... utter lack of charm?
Now as much as we like to believe everything we read, there's still something to be said for doing one's own research. And since we happen to be hanging in Greenpoint these days, why not see for ourselves...
Milk Bar: Communist gulag cafeteria, or hearty food at honest prices? Only time will tell! Time, and a trip to Greenpoint's most popular MB: Pyza.
The first thing I noticed inside Pyza was the TV. It reminded me of a time I was holed up in a Warsaw hotel, watching dubbed Smurfs reruns and drinking Tyskies to pass the time. Here, diners were eating, watching and laughing softly. I think it was a nightly newscast, one of those humorous feelgood stories (“your pig ate my mustache!”). But I don't speak Polish, so it might have been ironic, dark laughter over one of those tragic feelbad stories (“your pig ate my mustache.”)
The second thing I noticed was the menu. It was big, and the prices were low. No matter the dish, most things fell in the $5 to $6 range. I was having trouble deciding, so I asked the guy at the counter if he had any suggestions. He did, but not before breaking down a little Pyza history. The owners, Wanda and Krzystof Zawistowski, hail from a town 100 km outside of Warsaw. They opened shop about 7 years back in a space on Bedford Street with only 6 or 7 tables. Word spread, Pyza caught on, and after 5 years the small space was no longer cutting it. In the competitive culinary environment that is Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the people had spoken. The Zawistowskis' food was in ever-greater demand, so they moved to a bigger location on Nassau, with two large rooms and that perched TV.
It's easy to see why this place is so popular, especially amongst local Poles: it's extremely laid-back and friendly. Elderly patrons are escorted to their seats, and every patron is served a small glass of gratis Kompote (sweet, watery fruit punch). Most importantly, Pyza offers classic Polish food at modest prices, served quickly. “This is food for hard-working people,” the manager Mark confided: hearty, filling, tasty. And with that said, it was time for a little taste test of our own.
First up was a spot of Zurek, a/k/a white borscht, a slightly sour, milky soup made from a rye flour base and studded with smoky kielbasa. The sausage flavor was prominent, but the broth itself was too sweet for my tastes. I've had better, but maybe not cheaper. Especially when you consider that it came with a plate of potatoes topped with tasty fried onions. At $2 for all that food, it's pretty hard to gripe.
Still, we were more stoked on the ribs. I know it's officially spring, and this might be more of a cool weather dish, but Pyza's pork Spare Ribs ($5.50) are worth a shot any time of year. They are almost comically meaty. At first I thought, 'maybe I've been Pork'd!!!,' and waited for a hidden camera to pop out. But then I realized this was a standard serving size, and my thoughts wandered to the pig who donated said ribs. He must've been big. Big and mean, with ribs for days. Maybe he even had a Harley (can pigs ride hogs?). No matter, and girth notwithstanding, these had a clean pork flavor that stood strong under the savory brown gravy. If you consider yourself a Pork enthusiast (a porkficianado), then you owe it to yourself to give these a go. If nothing else, consider it a challenge.
Like most menu items, the ribs were served with two sides. Our fave was the crisp mustardy red cabbage, great either on its own or with the meat. We also appreciated how the vinegary, shredded beets helped to cut the rib fat. The coleslaw was good and fresh, but we were less enthusiastic about the sharp kraut (a tad musky) and the cucumber salad (a tad watery, and disappointingly light on the sour cream).
We did learn one thing, tho. Pyza isn't just the name of the restaurant; it's also the name of a giant fluffy potato dumpling. Stuffed with chopped pork and topped with fried bacon and onions, these pierogi alternatives look like shiny ostrich eggs. The potato dough is chewy, kinda like glutinous flour but lighter and less gummy. Aside from that, they taste pretty much like they sound.
The Pierogi ($5) are also homemade, and also a fine choice. We really liked their soft, thick skins, far more delicate than appearances might suggest. And the potato and cheese filling was surprisingly good: an endearing (if unlikely) sweet-n-salty combo of creamy potatoes and soft farmer's cheese.
So what should you order at Pyza? Whatever you're in the mood for. While this may not be the tastiest food in Greenpoint, it's some of the most comforting and consistent. A few dishes standout, others disappoint, yet everything is cheap enough to take the lows in stride. If you're looking for a Capital P-olish experience, are intrigued by the Milk Bar concept, and have a few bucks to spend on a meal that will last you the day, head on down. So long as you know what to expect, it's hard not to go with the flow and appreciate the experience.
118 Nassau Ave
Greenpoint, Brooklyn 11222
We like: pork ribs, potato & cheese pirogies, red cabbage, Springtime in Brooklyn