Normally our go-to travel meals are picnics and street food. While our Polish picnics were delightful, the street food was…..well, I wouldn’t eat it. I know, that’s totally out of character (one of my adorable qualities is that I’m not a picky eater).
The ubiquitous street food of Poland is the Zapiekanka: a piece of toasted French bread covered with canned mushrooms, yellow cheese and a river of ketchup.
Good thing Poland has Milk Bars.
Milk Bars are government subsidized cafeterias. Most towns have at least one and the big cities all have several.
The food is cheap, fast and satisfying in the way that hot, home cooked meals always are.
Milk Bars are not set up for tourists, so ordering can be an adventure. Jadłodajni U Stasi in Krakow had an English menu so we were able to order in a straightforward manner.
Milk Bars are popular and pretty easy to find, since there’s usually a line of people out the door. Arriving hungry in Torun after a long train ride, we joined the line of hungry students at Bar Malgoska. As with almost all the other Milk Bars, the food was served from the kitchen (so we couldn’t point at what we wanted). As our place in line grew closer to the cashier, HOB requested I order him a specific lists of foods—as if I speak Polish and could read the menu. Naturally, we started arguing and I snapped at him “Why do you think I can order you this and that? I can’t read the menu and there’s nothing to point at!” Just when our turn arrived and I was feeling especially desperate a young man, who must have been listening in our argument, said in English “Can I assist you in ordering?” YES! I practically hugged him. “We are hungry! Can you please order us two meals of something very Polish?” And that young man, that very handsome and considerate and admirable fellow, ordered us heaping plates of food and soup. Thank you kind stranger: you’ve earned a lifetime of budget travel karma.
I’m pretty sure the soup was borsht and it was tasty indeed.
Here’s what I advise: unless you have an affinity for ketchup sandwiches, plan on embracing Poland’s Milk Bars. Maybe you won’t learn Polish, but at least bring a menu decoder so you don’t have to rely on strangers to order for you. The food is cheap (no more than a few dollars a person for a hearty meal) and served up in seconds. Eating at Milk Bars is also a fun cultural experience: they draw in a wide demographic, from tots on field trips to business people to senior citizens. Everyone seems to eat a ton and to eat it fast. Even tiny old ladies are shoveling in giant helpings. This is cafeteria food, so if you’re looking for gourmet, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like all your meals to come with two lumps of mashed potatoes, Milk Bars will be your Polish culinary nirvana.