At Pierogi Queen in League City, the menu of unfamiliar words like bigos and golabki might confound those new to Polish cuisine. Fortunately, regulars and Polish expats who frequent the restaurant are always around to offer pointers. And of course owner Eva Sek has recommendations at the ready. These are not just the foods of her homeland, but the dishes of her childhood.
Even though she never formally trained as a chef, Sek learned how to make traditional dishes from her family members while growing up in Poland. “We were always cooking together,” she recalls. “I cooked with my mom by heart. We never wrote down the recipes.” She recalls the difficulties of growing up under a communist regime. She was around 18 years old when communism collapsed in Poland, and she remembers when the shelves in the stores were empty. “It was hard to buy meat and food,” Sek says. “But we had family around all the time, and we were always cooking at home and always had Sunday dinners together.”
Sek immigrated to Chicago in 2001, but a vacation to Texas inspired her and her husband to relocate in 2013. “We fell in love with the weather and the people,” she says. “Chicago is almost the same as Poland—too much snow. And Houston was a friendlier place.”
The one type of cuisine lacking in the city’s diverse food scene was Polish. “In Chicago, and in the North generally, you can find Polish restaurants and pierogi everywhere.” She was surprised that the vast Houston area had only one such eating establishment, Polonia Restaurant, which opened in 2003. With encouragement from her friends, who had always praised her home cooking, she opened Pierogi Queen in May 2016.
Located in a small shopping center close to Interstate 45, the cozy eatery is decked out with red-checked tablecloths and framed photographs of scenic Polish architecture and landscapes. A large map of Poland hangs on one of the walls, filled with pushpins denoting the hometowns or past travel destinations of her customers. The menu evokes the family dinners of Sek’s youth. She says the most popular item on the menu is pierogi—“1,000 percent”—followed by stuffed cabbage and kielbasa.
The restaurant offers a different soup every week, and the surprising favorite is the pickle soup, with shredded pickled cucumbers in a dill-flavored broth. “Some people are afraid to try it, but when they try it, they like it,” Sek insists. She also recommends the seasonal bigos, a hearty hunter’s stew of pork, sausage, cabbage, and vegetables; and the borscht, a beet soup also found in Russia and Ukraine.
When it comes to food, Poland shares much in common with its Eastern European neighbors, but it also incorporates flavors from the West, as it borders Germany. Pierogi Queen’s kielbasa plate features smoked sausage and sauerkraut with sourdough bread. Sek also caters to the American palate. “The Polish fries are my creation,” she says about one of the fusion items on her menu. “We didn’t eat fries much in Poland, but everyone in America likes fries. I thought they would work well with a creamy dill sauce that my father always made, topped with sausage.”
Naturally, the highlight of the menu is the namesake pierogi. These stuffed dumplings come with a variety of savory fillings: beef and pork, sauerkraut and mushroom, potato and farmer’s cheese, or potato and cheddar. The dessert version is filled with sweet farmer’s cheese and served with strawberry sauce. Sek makes the dumplings by hand and cooks them in the traditional way, either boiled or pan-fried. With her flavors, she also goes nontraditional, offering rotating options—like poppy seed and potato, onion, and jalapeño—each week. “We have flavors that you won’t find anywhere else,” Sek says. “That’s what makes us special.”