Savoring Sokolowski’s: Sometimes, local flavor involves more than food

For a mid-sized city, Cleveland’s culinary landscape has more than its share of landmines, topics sure to provoke argument within the foodie community. Take Sokolowski’s University Inn, Tremont’s circa-1923 Polish cafeteria, and the place it deserves in our restaurant hierarchy. A humble, family-owned eatery overlooking the Flats, Sokolowski’s dishes out overflowing portions of high-carb comfort, miles removed from Cleveland’s contemporary dining scene. Yet, its walls are lined with accolades from publications ranging from Gourmet (which dubbed it one of America’s Best Restaurants in 2000) to this little rag; and it’s a predictable stop whenever crews from the Food Network or the Travel Channel come to town. Clearly, this acclaim rubs some local foodies the wrong way, generating rants that question the gourmet cred of anyone who admits they dig the place. Predictably, my recent endorsement of Sokolowski’s on the Cleveland Foodie blog prompted the usual naysaying. So as a reality check, I made another visit last Friday, packing both an appetite and my most critical perspective. Did I find the food outstanding? Frankly, no. While the plump little pierogies and buttery onions were first-rate, and the juicy bratwurst and kraut were winners, the mashed potatoes were a little on the thin side, the homemade rice pudding seemed somewhat pasty, and the cod-to-breading ratio on the beer-battered fish was barely 1:3. (Luckily, frosty pours of imported brews like Zywiec and Okocim help smooth out the rough spots.) Yet this is exactly the niche that Sokolowski’s was designed to fill, from the moment it opened its doors: a warm, welcoming spot for cheap, familiar eats, just right for the Eastern-European steelworkers who toiled in the nearby mills. And while the mills may be gone, the appeal apparently remains: The guy behind me turned out to be a business traveler from Poland, who started raving about the food as we shuffled through the line. “I come here every time I’m in town,” he enthused. “It’s just like Mama’s!” Plus, from our seat at the long communal table, near the massive stone fireplace, it was impossible not to savor the rich taste of Cleveland’s ethnic past. Polkas playing in the background; the raw, industrial view of the Flats; and the silver-haired clientele who undoubtedly retired from those very steel mills only added to the charm, making Sokolowski’s seem like a sort of living shrine to our city’s blue-collar heritage. After all, it’s spots like this that give Cleveland its distinctive flavor, making us different from New York, or Wheeling, or Albuquerque. And whether it’s a Southern barbecue shack, a Navajo taco joint, or a Florida fish camp, preserving a region’s local culinary heritage is important stuff. It’s one of the reasons that foodies support local restaurants over national chains. And it’s the real reason Sokolowski’s deserves its seat at the gourmet’s table. --- Elaine T. Cicora
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