Fifty Dollar Dinner

Bogusha’s Polish Restaurant & Deli
825 Stevens Ave., Portland

photo/Chris Busby
photo/Chris Busby

I visited Bogusha’s, a small Polish restaurant and grocery at Morrills Corner in Portland, twice last month. After the first visit, for dinner with my husband early one evening, I asked him if he’d return with me for lunch. “No way,” he said. “I’ll have an anxiety attack if I go back there.”

It had been a vaguely uncomfortable experience. We were the only customers in the dimly lit place that night. There was no music in the background. We browsed the exotic items on the shelves — buckwheat groats, powdered borsch — in silence as Bogusha herself, the sole employee, cooked our meal. While we ate, Bogusha sat a few feet behind us, watching a TV on mute. My husband and I conversed in hushed tones and sipped beer from warm glasses. (Bogusha’s is BYOB, so we’d brought a four-pack of Waypoint, a nutty coffee porter brewed by Rising Tide.)

The food was good, hearty fare, and paired well with the porter. The placki ziemniaczane ($7.50) are fried potato pancakes, soft as pillows inside and about as flavorful. A little salt and a dollop of sour cream liven them up. We also had the Polish Platter ($14.50), a sampling of specialties from the Old Country.

Bigos is a comforting “hunter’s stew” with ham, kielbasa, cabbage and sauerkraut, cabbage’s mature cousin, which gives this stew a funky kick. Pierogi, the fried Polish dumplings popular enough in America to shed italics, are made in-house here, of course. The cabbage-and-mushroom variety is the finest iteration; the milder potato-and-cheese version would be a hit at the kids’ table. A plump golabek (also commonly called golumpki), a cabbage leaf stuffed with rice and beef, was also on the platter, along with a link of kielbasa.

The schabowy ($12.50) is a pork cutlet pounded thin, breaded and fried. Ours was on the dry side, but was mostly redeemed when topped with a spoonful of mild pickled relish. It’s simple and satisfying, “like truck-stop food,” said my husband, who compared it to chicken-fried steak.

When we were done, we paid at the deli counter — $34.50 before tip and tax, plus the beer — and left without lingering. Closing time was 6 p.m.

When I returned a few days later with a friend for lunch, the place was empty and quiet again, but the layout had been slightly rearranged. The space felt brighter, buoyant even. “It was time for something new,” Bogusha said, smiling. We ate more pierogi ($7.50 for a plate; everything’s several dollars cheaper at lunchtime) and sipped bowls of Bogusha’s delicious, homemade pea soup ($5.50) under the benign gaze of a mannequin dressed in Polish finery.

This time, I struck up a conversation with Bogusha before leaving. A few simple questions — When did you move here? Do you have children? — soon bloomed into a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion. We talked about marriage (“Don’t bother getting divorced and remarrying. Stick with the first one! It’s not worth the trouble. They’re all the same,” she advised with a wink) and what it means to feel at home (“Whenever I see the sign ‘Welcome to Maine,’ I know I’m home,” she said). Bogusha mused on the globalization of Polish culture and cuisine, the accessibility of imported foods and seasonal local produce, the decline of home cooking and her own family’s love of KFC.

Bogusha takes pride in sticking to traditional Polish fare. “People don’t come here to try something new,” Bogusha told us. “They come here because they want to remember Polish food. This is the food I learned to cook in the kitchens of my mother and my mother-in-law.”

“I’m going to start staying open until eight o’clock on Thursdays and Fridays,” she said toward the end of our talk, “So come for dinner!” I smiled to myself, remembering the recent dinner my husband and I had. “Bring beer!” Bogusha implored. “Bring your music, if you like. And bring friends. This place is too quiet for just two people! You must bring your friends.”

You can bet I’ll be taking her advice.

— Hannah Joyce McCain

Bogusha’s is open Mon.-Wed. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Thurs. and Fri. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., and Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.