Sokolowski’s University Inn (Cleveland, OH)

(Update: Covid-19’s restaurant toll continues: Sokolowki’s closed mid-October 2020 due to Covid-related business issues. They will be greatly missed)

My regular readers know that once a year, I gather with several of my friends and we do a “Death March” in which we spend an extended weekend at a different metropolitan area exploring the food, drink, and cultural scene, culminating in a ~20 mile walk through the city to explore all the neighborhoods. We’ve done a lot of cities, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, London… this year was Cleveland. Okay, I can hear a lot of you already asking, “Wait, what? Cleveland?!” But you heard me right. Yeah, Cleveland had some rough years of post-industrialism, burning rivers, and general rust belt blight, but as I learned with many business trips to the area in the ’90s through recent years, Cleveland is actually one of the country’s most underrated cities, having cleaned themselves up quite nicely, and the city has a plethora of great attractions, ranging from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to some great parks, some great breweries, and excellent restaurants both old and new. While much of the culinary coverage of Cleveland focuses on the newer places, we started our visit in the city with a trip to one of the old stalwarts of Cleveland ethnic dining: Sokolowski’s.

Unlike a lot of the Cleveland dining scene that’s either downtown around 4th Street, or over in Ohio City, Sokolowski’s is nestled into the north end of Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood that’s cut off from downtown by the Cuyahoga River, and cut off from Ohio City by I-90 (indeed, the owners of Sokolowski’s must have been mighty nervous during the planning stages of the Interstate). It’s a pleasant neighborhood, one of Cleveland’s older ones, with a lot of Victorian houses, small eateries, and the like (and the famous house from A Christmas Story). Sitting just off the bluff at the north end of the neighborhood, Sokolowksi’s University Inn (named after University Rd, which is in turn named after the long-departed and short-lived Cleveland University) has been serving up beverages and food since 1923 (although some of the dining rooms are from later additions).

Sokolowksi’s is nominally a cafeteria-style restaurant serving up Polish food, but if you delve down into the menus and specials a bit, the menu is a bit broader: alongside all of the traditional Polish foods sit some Hungarian items (like a Paprikash), some English items (Salisbury Steak), German (Bratwurst), and even American (Maryland Crab Cakes if you go on a Friday), so really, it’s more of a “comfort food” assortment. After moving down a cafeteria line selecting your beverages (including beer), you’ve got a pretty wide assortment of dishes available across the comfort food spectrum.

Since it had been several years since my last Sokolowski’s trip, I really did try to get enough items to hit some of my Eastern European cravings. And of course, that means starting with some pierogi. On the face of it, these are your standard potato and cheese pierogi, but the execution on these is perfect: the dough itself is rich and toothsome with a little bit of a sour cream bite to it, cooked up just to the point of still being slightly toothy, and then sauteed in a mix of butter and diced onions. Sure, it’s pretty much a cardiologist’s picture of “what not to eat”, but these are thoroughly flavorful and perfect in texture.

Next up: potato pancakes. Over my years I’ve run into two styles of potato pancakes: those made with shredded potatoes (I usually call these latke-style, since most “latkes” I’ve had are like this), and those made from a smooth batter. There’s merits to both, but when eating Polish food, I love the latter, usually cooked to a near-burnt crisp (probably because all sorts of family dinners with potato pancakes growing up served them like that, in fact, I almost taste kielbasa just thinking about them). And the ones at Sokolowski’s are perfect for this style: thin and crisp, just ready to soak up a bit of butter or sour cream.

For my main course, I shifted to “Hungarian” and went with one of the Friday specials: chicken paprikash. Served up with a nice bed of noodles and cabbage, this was a rather good rendition of the classic Eastern European comfort food: nice tender chunks of chicken and onion in a perfectly creamy but peppery and smoky paprika sauce, the latter perfect for chasing up with the bits of noodle or some of the potato pancakes. Again, a winner.

But for one of the most impressive dishes of the visit, we have to turn to Carol’s selection: the cabbage roll. A rich and flavorful mix of pork and rice with a light spicing wrapped in cabbage, served up with a rich peppery sauce, this was one of the better cabbage rolls I’ve had, indeed, it was in the same class as Kramarczuk’s.

Overall, it’s really easy to see why Sokolowski’s is Cleveland’s oldest operating restaurant: they are still consistently served up good, delicious, and affordable food in a pleasant, welcoming restaurant. I’m hoping I get back soon,

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