BROOKLYN, N.Y. - After riding the G train out to the Greenpoint neighborhood, you're not actually that far from the center of Manhattan. But a stroll down the avenues of this longstanding Polish enclave reveals an unexpectedly foreign atmosphere.
Overheard conversation swishes past your understanding, Slavic syllables whose meaning you can't possibly grasp. Signs read like the world's most-challenging Scrabble hand, with consonants piling upon each other (Perfumy Kosmetyki, Bakery Rzeszowska 1-866-WYGRANA). Fliers for the Kabaret Moralnego Niepokoju seem to be available everywhere, and Polish fashion magazines crowd the news racks.
Though you may feel you've dropped into Krakow unprepared, you don't need to understand Polish to thoroughly immerse yourself. Just let your stomach be your guide and enjoy the array of appetizing dining options available for a fraction of the prices across the East River.
The restaurant Pyza evokes images of Poland's "milk bars," Communist-era eateries that serve up inexpensive, hearty fare in a no-fuss setting. Patrons order (usually in Polish) at a counter, owners Wanda and Krzystof Zawistowski call the dishes to the kitchen through a window, and plates heaping with comfort foods such as potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, and pork goulash begin arriving. Meals are in the $5 to $7 range and include a glass of fruit punch and ample sides of cucumber and carrot salads, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes topped with chopped dill. Tuck into your plate as the regulars do: Push aside your table's pot of silk chrysanthemums, turn your cafeteria tray toward the corner television, and tune into the latest news from the motherland.
After lunch, satisfy your sweet tooth at one of the numerous local bakeries. Windows beckon with chocolate, cheese, and raisin-filled babki and all manner of desserts dusted with powdered sugar, adorned with fruit, and filled with custards. You could while away the afternoon taste-testing each shop's paczki (pronounced "poonch-key"). These treats, often still warm, are essentially Polish doughnuts filled with raspberry, lemon, or other fruit jelly. At Jubilatka Bakery, where the cost is 65 cents each, try them glazed or powdered.
Greenpoint's delis are also rife with picnic fare and savory souvenirs. The friendly counter staff in red T-shirts and white paper caps at Steve's Meat Market will help you navigate cases of fresh and smoked kielbasa, ham, and pig's feet. When I ask about something for the grill, they offer generous samples of a garlicky, juicy Podhalanska kielbasa ($1.18 a pound), and a smoked, slightly spicy Weselna "wedding" kielbasa ($1.19 a pound). The links exude a powerfully enticing aroma that proves difficult to resist later on the Bolt bus back to Boston.
Stocked with imported dill pickles, celery salad, grated beets, sauerkraut, and farmer's cheese, Star Bakery & Deli supplies pierogies, sernik (cheesecake), knedle (plum-filled dumplings), and still more paczki for the road.
The neighborhood's more-upscale restaurant, Karczma, hides on a quieter side street. Inside, you'll find highly varnished oak floors and high-backed wooden booths, waitresses in Polish folk dress and - before the evening rush - 20-somethings hunched over thin laptops. Still, like the rest of Greenpoint, it serves up generous portions at laudable prices. If you don't have room for dinner, order a Zywiec or Okocim beer to wash down a final snack of fried cheese-and-potato pierogi ($5.50). Or, better yet, indulge in the peasant-style lard ($3.50), a silky spread studded with smoky pork and served with rye bread.
On Manhattan Avenue, a store window slows passersby with an eye-catching poster. Six men, each wearing only a krakuska (a red four-cornered hat trimmed with peacock feathers), coyly peek over their shoulders in an advertisement for "Golo I Wesolo," the Polish version of "The Full Monty." Maybe this is Krakow after all.