As if in a dream, I walked into a diner that wasn't a diner. The exterior had fresh coats of bright, colorful paint, not historical, faded, peeling layers. The large plate-glass windows sparkled when random sunbeams flung themselves to earth to escape the incoming clouds. Not a handprint, nose print or flyspeck in sight on these windows. Would the interior, hidden behind cheery curtains and sparkling white mini-blinds, equal the makeover of the exterior?
I'm sure lots of people remember the Quality Caf on Cucharras, just east of Nevada. When the Independent first ground into existence, we spent our fair share of lunch breaks at the Quality, scarfing burgers and onion rings, and soaking up the slightly greasy, faintly smoky atmosphere of the kind of place where regulars had their own coffee cups and used them every morning without fail. The restaurant underwent a transfer of ownership, and the place became a sort of Asian food/diner hybrid that we wound up patronizing less frequently.
Now the Quality is no more, in name or in spirit. Lucyna and Jerzy Bandur have transformed it into the Old Europe Restaurant, and the transformation is complete. When I entered for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to find no old ghosts lingering, not visually or olfactorily. You might not recognize the place when you first walk in. The counter is still there, still the perfect place to grab a quick bite. The rest of the place is given over to neat, tidy tables and booths along the walls. The rich gold paneling gives the place a homey feel, with a variety of European prints hanging on the walls (including a giant map of Europe) and gently susurating ceiling fans. The gray, floral carpet is impeccably clean, and the tables are set with a cloth napkin inside the glass at each setting.
The menu offers a nice variety, although so far I've stuck to the Polish specialties on the menu. Sure, they offer things like halibut steak, trout and shrimp, but I'm holding out for things like golabky -- stuffed cabbage with mushroom gravy. Lunch and dinner menus are pretty similar, with more sandwiches and slightly smaller portions served at lunchtime. Since this review the restaurant has started serving breakfast, but I haven't been able to sample it yet.
This is an excellent place for goulash fans to visit, especially hungry ones. We got a bowl full of linguine, which seemed slightly incongruous, but it was covered with a smooth, thick stew of the tenderest cubes of beef imaginable. The gravy was full-flavored but delicate, a sort of essence of beef. You get a choice of side dishes, and we chose sauerkraut. Wow! The shreds of cabbage were slow-simmered to a rich golden color, and the flavor was enough to send your taste buds into orbit. This sauerkraut is sour, but not unbalanced. It made a perfect complement to the unctuous, rich goulash.
If you don't want sauerkraut you can get the vegetable of the day. On our last visit, it was an acceptable but bland mixture of carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. You also get a basket of chewy rye bread on your table, and a choice of soup or salad. The salad is extremely fresh romaine with some onion, tomato, red bell pepper and croutons. The soup we tried was mushroom noodle, which was thick and flavorful, although the noodles had a canned texture, as if from a can of Campbell's chicken noodle.
Of course, who can pass up a combination plate that offers you the opportunity to taste some of everything? This plate is not for the faint of heart; it contains so much food it's just about spilling over the edges. Grab the pierogies before they fall off the edge, because they're best eaten warm. These plump little dumplings are stuffed with a finely ground beef filling with a hint of onion. The kielbasa was outstanding. A large section of sausage was scored about halfway through in half-inch intervals, then deep-fried. The result is sausage that was deliciously crusty around the cut edges, but incredibly juicy when you cut into it.
My favorite part of the platter was the pork cutlet. It was enormous, hand-tenderized (pounded) to whisper thinness, and coated with a light golden crust so crispy that it just about shatters when you cut into it. Fork tender, it will melt in your mouth. And I have visions dancing in my head that involve going back at lunchtime, and savoring this same cutlet between two slices of chewy rye bread. My least favorite part of the platter was the potatoes and gravy. The mound of perfectly smooth potatoes is enormous but not particularly flavorful, and the gravy that tops it is good but scant. I believe if you are going to serve an enormous mound of potatoes, they need to be accompanied by a commensurate amount of gravy.
If you have fond memories of the Quality, you owe it to yourself to check out the new incarnation. The welcoming atmosphere remains and the food is still good, even if it isn't the familiar (and dare I say boring?) old burger and fries.