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Eat your borscht

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Being a restaurant that specializes primarily in Polish food in a small town whose economy is driven by tourists, mainly from Texas and its surrounding states, must be difficult. So I imagine that the tourists are one of the main contributing factors to the ongoing menu changes over the years at Manitou's European Coffee and Deli, beginning with the name.

It used to be just the European Caf, but recently the word Café was replaced with the word Coffee and the word Deli has been added, with changes reflected on the menu. Along with a variety of deli sandwiches, recent additions also include items from the burger family-- like a cheeseburger, a mushroom and pepper burger, the ever-popular veggie burger and the always-likable patty melt.

But menu changes or no menu changes, the quaint little caf, which seats about 18 at max, is still around and busier than ever. And while their menu has expanded to include standards like burgers, melts and salads, as well as full breakfast, I am happy to report that they still have their specialty dishes, like pierogies and Hungarian goulash. And most importantly, they still have beet borscht, and it remains the same: fuchsia in color, sweet in taste and soothing to the soul.

Borscht is not for everyone, but it has been an intricate part of my life for a long time. So I respect a good beet borscht when I find one. My grandmother, who came to this country from Poland in the early 1930s, used to make vats of the stuff, and ship about a dozen jars of it to my mother every few months. It was one of the staples of my mother's childhood, and so it was to be for my siblings and me as well. Sometimes we'd have it for breakfast; other times it was just a snack. Often it accompanied dinner. In my household, borscht was as common and as American as tomato soup.

It wasn't until I was in high school that I discovered not everyone was as well acquainted as I was with borscht. None of my friends knew what it was. They thought I had made up the word. Often I'd invite them over to try some, but as soon as they got a look at the color of the soup and the glob of sour cream that usually accompanied it, a bewildered look would wash over their faces and they'd refuse to try it.

Sitting in the European Coffee and Deli the other day, I recognized that same expression on the faces of some of the patrons who walked by my table as I was lunching on a big bowl of borscht. After a while I couldn't tell if they were staring because I was me, or because I was eating bright, pinkish-reddish soup. Finally one of them got brave enough to ask me "what in the Sam Hill" I was eating. Like children learning a new word, each person at the table repeated it out loud, over and over. Hearing borscht pronounced in a Southern accent was disturbing. It came out as bow-urcht. To his credit, one guy at the table did end up ordering a cup because he'd never had pink soup before. Still, he drew the line at mixing in the accompanying sour cream.

The great thing about beet borscht, aside from its color, is that it's a versatile dish. You can eat it hot or cold. Either way, it should always be eaten with a healthy dollop of sour cream. It just gives it more texture and makes for a nice color. At European Coffee & Deli it's served hot, unless otherwise requested.

Eating borscht among southern accents is a strange experience. But the European Caf (Coffee) and Deli makes beet borscht comparable to my grandmother's: a thin, red-colored, sweet-tasting broth, full of tiny, cubed beets. That (and the Hungarian goulash) is what keeps me coming through the door, even at the height of tourist season.

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