Eating Krakow: Pod Baranem, U Babci Maliny, and the Barfing American

Our breakfast goal, the day we visited the Wieliczka salt mine, was restaurant Pod Baranem (translation: “under the ram”), located across from Wawel Castle, the most visible of all landmarks. From the flat we rented on Trynitarska st, the nearest intersection (one block) is Krakowsa st, a straight one mile shot to both the Eastern wall of the castle and the main square (it becomes Stradmoska st about halfway to the castle).

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PB was not quite open when we arrived. The four of us were entering the beginning phases of a crisis of hunger so we hit this pretzel cart located in front of the church across the street; Krakow is famous for pretzels, and being a fool for such a thing, I was stoked that an opportunity to try one suddenly presented itself

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Meh. That particular pretzel was disappointingly cold and stale.

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Pod Baranem http://podbaranem.com/

I’m not really sure what I expected of Pod Baranem, but for some reason, it wasn’t white tablecloths and a waitstaff suited up for serious service in buttoned down, full length aprons and the sort. The space is quite charming in a country sort of way…brick walls, a fireplace, mismatched, random art hanging about, fussy curtains and lamps.

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Their menu is enormous, which in America indicates that the freezers are bursting with pre-made Sysco entree’s and the like, but in Poland, with a list full of game and offal, it means nothing goes to waste. This menu provided an endless variety of mouth-watering choices, each dish more appealing than the last. After much negotiation at the table, we narrowed it down to venison pate, borscht with a meat croquette, and herring in cream and dill sauce.

But first, our server arrived, like an angel descended from heaven, with a ramekin of lard whipped with caramelized onion and apple, accompanied by a basket of hearty, grainy, scrumptious bread.

We spread it on our respective pieces of bread, salt and peppered it up, then promptly experienced a sort of manic euphoria.

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The venison pate was a decadently buttery, rich and smooth slab of awesome, served with a lively dollop of red wine jam spiked with spicy horseradish.

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The herring was unexpectedly subtle in flavor; it didn’t have the intense stank that 99% of herring dishes do; the texture not one bit mushy, but fabulously firm, complimented by the most tangy, zesty, cream folded with pickled onions. I kept forgetting what I was eating with that dish, the flavor of it was just so unique, unlike any herring preparation we had in Europe or since, and we’ve had a LOT, because it’s Mikey’s thang.

And then, Borscht; our first of the trip.

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That deep purple beet broth was surprisingly complex; bursting with rich, peppery flavor. Borscht can be pretty boring; the PB version was anything but. At its side, a giant beef croquette

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Inside, a lovey spiral of spiced meat and dough.

That meal at Pod Baranem more than made up for the overpriced, under seasoned, mess of a tasting menu we had eaten the night before. We vowed to return, making good on our promise a few days later. It should rank high on anyone’s list of essential food stops in Krakow.

Thank goodness that meal was heavy, because we were about to head underground for a tour that was trying enough on a full stomach, but would have turned into a full on knife fight had we developed hanger at any point.

Post salt mine, we grabbed a cab to U Babci Malini, http://www.kuchniaubabcimaliny.pl/ yet another spot that I’d been stalking on the interwebs well in advance of our visit. I read many descriptions saying things like “your grandmas kitchen” and it turns out, the name means “your grandma Malini” or at least according to google translate it does.

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The décor had looked all bizarre and fun, the prices cheap. However, there are two U Babci’s in Krakow, and we ended up at the fancier version which I had no knowledge of, this one residing at 17 Ulica Slawkowska.

We were greeted by a young guy who was dressed like he just walked off the set of “A Clockwork Orange.” White, long-sleeved, collared, button down shirt, black vest, black bowler hat, tie, white gloves, black pants, baby face.

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He led us downstairs where there were two completely opposite style dining rooms, side by side, separated only by an archway. One, fussy and doily laden, truly evoking thoughts of grandmothers and their sitting rooms the world over,(complete with piano player) the other, a cozy, dark, den outfitted with picnic tables. We requested a table in the latter; a room decorated with all manner of creepy porcelain dolls and western gear (saddles, etc.) with its own little bar and an all female wait staff, dressed in white lace dresses, black 1920’s style jewelry, with feathers and/or headbands in their hair.

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U Babci had a menu equally enormous to that of Pod Baranem, which concluded with a list of song selections for on demand entertainment from the piano man. We placed our order and began to drink away our salt mine trauma as we waited. Soon, the ewe’s milk cheese fried with bacon arrived.

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This was a simple skewer threaded with deep-fried purses of smoky cheese (five total) joined by rich, thick cut bacon, served with a glob of sweet jam, lending a fruity lift to the low noted flavors of the dish. I really dug on that stuff…I mean, hot fried cheese is a no brainer, as is bacon, and together, well that right there would be a match made in cholesterol heaven.

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Next up, a sampler plate of fried pierogi’s; (we were given the option, steamed or fried) meat, mushroom and cabbage, potato with cream cheese. They were all delicious, with their browned, crisp skins and piping hot fillings, but the mushroom and cabbage pierogi was particularly special, with its mixture of deep and earthy with bitter and bright inside.

As much as we were all enjoying the great food and even better atmosphere, I was still really wanting to see U Babci Maliny the second, over on Ulica Szpitalna (38) just because I’d been stalking it for so long, and I was harboring a very odd obsession with their huge fish tank. I dunno.

UBM II was difficult to find, like, scavenger hunt style, involving a traipse through an office building, a random and hidden set of stairs, a weird little wood closet, and a set of heavy wooden doors, which opened into a big, square, wooden room full of picnic tables; one large fish tank in the middle. We were greeted by crickets; not one note of music being played, nor one word of conversation being spoken, the four patrons in the room pausing to stare at us then returning to their business.

The staff seemed to consist of one server and one enormous woman in an apron and head scarf, who alternated from serving food to collecting zloty for bathroom use in the wooden closet hallway.

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Nothing about that U Babci appealed to us, not the food, not the atmosphere, not the multi tasking cook/bathroom attendant. We had a beer and left, heading towards Winoteka Winoman, a wine bar that I had marked on my map, near the main square. Unfortunately, it also looked empty and boring, with pictures of the food plastered all over the exterior which in America, is a red flag 100% of the time, but when abroad, it’s just a crap shoot. We opted instead to check out a nearby bar.

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It was your typical dungeon setup; an arched stone doorway leading to a set of steps, followed by a subterranean set of rooms.

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Downstairs, there was one small bar that sat four; then a side room (down more stairs) with a cobblestoned floor, maybe three arched doors to either side, each flanked with heavy red curtains, that led to rooms with tables. We stayed bellied up to the bar where Jake immediately engaged the bartender, who responded in kind by challenging Jake to drink more and more ridiculous and expensive shit.

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Randi and I ordered a couple of local dark beers that were super bizarre and tasted like pure sugar, while Jake and Mikey were roped into drinking some raspberry syrup, absinthe and tabasco shot

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Which resulted in a barf.

When that was over we started our walk home, which took us through the beautifully charming Planty park. It was dark, and cold and kind of foggy, giving an ethereal feel to the lush, green surroundings. Soon, we found ourselves staring at Wawel castle, and the river; across the street from us, a sweet little spot with an outdoor grill, picnic tables spread about, the smell of sausage wafting through the air. I can’t get the name, but it is on the corner of Podzamcze and Straszewskiego streets, and, bonus, it’s open twenty four hours.

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They grilled us up a juicy flavor bomb of a sausage with the snappiest of skins

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brought us some phenomenal pickles

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and tolerated Jake’s attempts at friendliness. Krakovians, they are not so into that.

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Krakow should be a world heritage site for their sausage and pickles. I’ve never had better, anywhere in the world.

On the way back to our flat, we had a unicorn zapiekanka sighting…just some little window, whipping out the communist’s gift to street food. The zapiekanka, one of Poland’s most famous culinary creations; a dug out, toasted (zapiekanka means “to roast” or “to scorch”), French roll, traditionally filled with sauteed mushrooms and cheese then topped with uber sweet Krakovian ketchup. These days, there are endless varieties of toppings, but that night, we went classic.

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It was magical.

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