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Holy Smoke! Polish Barbecue?

No, but Eastern European Fare Upstages Eatery's Original Specialty

May 11, 2000|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I didn't know they had barbecue in Poland," my friend said when I invited her to Polish Restaurant Master Smoke BBQ.

I didn't either. So it was on a Friday night that we found ourselves nursing a high-octane Polish beer and pricking up our ears at the parade of Polish covers of American hits that played over the sound system ("Soul Man" sounds pretty good in Polish, it turns out).

The restaurant's interior came as a surprise; its location, next to a bar named Glo-Room in Anaheim, fairly screams hole-in-the-wall, but once through the door you're in a spacious room vaguely patterned after a cowboys' mess hall. You hear a lot of Polish at the tables, a good sign.

As the waitress trotted past our table, I caught a glimpse of several plates that looked distinctly unlike barbecue. Hmmm. It turns out barbecue really isn't a Polish thing after all. Master Smoke opened its doors six months ago with smoked meat as its menu's centerpiece but soon found that its selection of hearty Eastern European fare was upstaging its bid to cater to mainstream American taste. Hence, the words "Polish Restaurant" were prefixed to the existing name to give a more accurate impression.

These days, co-owner and hostess Dorothy Barr may just shoo you away from barbecue toward something in the cutlet line. "Try the cutlet Sobieski," she counseled me. "Very good."

This is the only Polish restaurant in Orange County, so I did try the cutlet Sobieski. And eventually I even had some barbecue here.

This place is not for the lipophobic. The food is a bit uneven, but if you've got the sort of appetite that cries out for rustic, filling, comfort food, you'll find satisfaction in its large portions (and reasonable prices).

Dinner starts with soup or salad. The latter is a no-frills affair of chopped iceberg lettuce with a few sprinklings. The soup of the day is a better bet, especially if it's cucumber. You get thin strips of cucumber swimming in a fresh, slightly peppery chicken broth, nicely balanced with a high note of dill. The tomato soup tends to be bland though.

The potato pancakes rate as a guilty pleasure. They're patties of shredded potatoes fried to a dark, glistening brown. They've got a nice bite, the crunchy exterior giving way to the warm creaminess of the center. They're available by themselves with sides of applesauce or sour cream.

They also turn up as a foundation for the gulasz, a low-key stew spiked with pimentos and seasoned with nutmeg--a little too much for my taste--rather than the paprika that is more likely to inform a Hungarian gulyas (both spellings are pronounced the same). It's pleasant enough but could use a little more seasoning.

The cutlet Sobieski is indeed a high point on the menu. It's a third cousin to veal cordon bleu: a breaded filet of pork loin stuffed with a melange of cheese, onions and mushrooms flavored with concentrated chicken broth. The meat is juicy, and the sturdy crust provides a satisfying contrast to the gooey filling, in taste and texture.

The other of the menu's "Chief's Specials" is Marysi warkocz, Mary's braids. It's baby tenderloin strips braided together with smoked bacon and roasted. The dish was flavorful, but my serving was a bit dry.

I was happy with the pierogi, ravioli-like dumplings stuffed with cheese or minced meat. Though our table's resident pierogi connoisseur found them lacking, I must report that she was comparing them to her Eastern European grandmother's.

I like the sauerkraut; it's flecked with bits of pork, and the usual briny flavor is cut with sugar, creating an interesting tension between sweet and sour.

The kielbasa are billed as homemade Chicago sausages. They're piquant with garlic but otherwise not particularly remarkable. I do recommend the dish called ground cutlet, which is essentially a meatloaf made of pork and beef. It's moist and flavorful, served in a thin mushroom gravy.

The stuffed cabbage has the usual rice-meat stuffing and a transparent tomato sauce lacquered over the cabbage leaves. It's quite satisfying. Antrykot is not a beefsteak, as you might expect if you recognize the French word entreco^te here, but a thin pork-loin filet breaded and fried in the schnitzel manner. It was cooked well but didn't have much flavor, which is perplexing in light of that savory cutlet Sobieski.

My friend had continued to resist my efforts to try the barbecue combination, but despite the literal thumbs-down she gave it, I insisted. My imagination was still fired with the concept of Polish barbecue, even though I'd learned how the restaurant had changed its name.

Finally, it arrived: a plate of chicken, back ribs and short ribs slathered with a homemade sauce. The sauce was pungent, if excessively sweet, but the meat had a fine, smoky hickory flavor. Polish or not, it was pretty darn good.

Prices are very low: sandwiches $3-$7, dinners $7.50-$15.

BE THERE

Polish Restaurant Master Smoke BBQ, 2610 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. (714) 827-9074. Beer and wine. Open Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-9 p.m.

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