1085 Harlem Rd., Cheektowaga, NY 14227
Web: Polish Villa II
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"The bars, the opportunity to hang out with friends, and the possibility of meeting new ones - particularly of the opposite sex - are what really make this local event so vibrant."
We may have grown up in Western New York, but we were living out of town when Dyngus Day evolved from a series of neighborhood festivals into the largest event of its kind in the world. So, like some of our readers, we were surprised when we first learned that Dyngus Day is essentially the Polish version of St. Patrick's Day: conceptually religious, with a whole bunch of ethnic traditions to observe, but at the core, the day after Easter has become a day for the Polish community to let loose and party. And if the record books are correct, there's no place on the planet that parties on Dyngus Day like Western New York; as we write these words, an estimated 70,000 people have taken to the streets, restaurants, and social clubs of Buffalo, Cheektowaga, and Hamburg, where polka music, pussywillows, and a parade marked the day, and myriad open bars - official and otherwise - rule the night.
Enticed by the inescapable advertisements, we worked a few extra hours last week so that we could budget a few hours off for Monday afternoon, hoping to get an early lead on the Dyngus Day crowds. This was a mistake: though the Polish Villa II was open for lunch at noon, and a few other of the 19 official Dyngus Day venues had posted event start times for before 5:00pm, we learned quickly that our 2:00pm arrival put us in a small minority. A smallish crowd lingered around the Villa's moderate lunch buffet, filling their plates full of breads, eggs, pierogi, and pieces of kotlet schabowy, and we joined the line, grabbing a bottle of Tyskie beer from the bar. Pitched everywhere, the Tyskie was a good if not especially unique brew, comparable to Czechvar and stronger than a typical American Budweiser; we'd drink it again.
We're not going to rate the buffet at the Villa, but we enjoyed it: the kotlet schabowy is the Polish version of wiener schnitzel or tonkatsu, a flat, breaded, and deep-fried cutlet of meat - here, chicken - and though these were being served buffet-style rather than fresh from the frier, they were good. So too were the pierogis, thick noodle-like dumplings with potatoes inside, served separately from small but tasty chunks of kielbasa sausage, roasted, red, and fatty as could be. They made the sweet ham, potato salad, and kapusta kiszona (sauerkraut) taste like health food, and we ate all of it without complaint. Best of the whole bunch were oversized clumps of chicken, stuffing, and white gravy, which brought us back to the buffet twice, and some wonderfully light pastries that helped us forget about how much damage we'd done with the items that came before.
With hours left to go before the 5:00 parade, we were ready, willing, and able to get on the complimentary Dyngus Day shuttle buses offered with the Pussywillow Pass, a $10 bracelet that granted full admission to one participating venue and $2 admission to every other. Unfortunately, we learned, the buses weren't going to be running until 4:45. So we drove down to the Corpus Christi Church to check out its 3:00 sausage barbecue, leaving when we found that it wasn't yet running by 3:15, and no one seemed to know when it would be ready. That brought us to the Broadway Market next door, which was mostly shut down, but decked out with balloons and t-shirt stands as musicians warmed up for the anticipated crowds. Tables and stores inside began to fill up as the parade drew closer; after the lead-up to Easter, this was going to be a very big day for the Market's vendors.
As we discovered, the parade's a big spectacle, and if you like polka music and Polish food, there's plenty to be had everywhere on Dyngus Day, but the bars, the opportunity to hang out with friends, and the possibility of meeting new ones - particularly of the opposite sex - are what really seem to make this local event so vibrant. The pussywillows, the "world's largest squirt gun," the Polish alcohol brands: they're all just ways to bring flirting out into public and inspire people to loosen up, dance, and get together. Girls were dressed for maximum cuteness, guys in macho, tight "kiss me, I'm drunk and Polish" shirts. When we visited another venue, the Potts Banquet Hall (694 S. Ogden St., Buffalo, NY 14206, 716.826.6575), there seemed to be more people crowded around the cash bar than the buffet, more space for dancing and musicians than for eating, and far more attention paid to the selection of drinks than the choices of foods.
At Potts, we found a buffet that was far more limited and much less appealing than the one at Polish Villa II: the pierogis had been replaced by "Lazy Pierogis" - a sloppy bowl of creamy noodles - while the slaw was thinner, the meats less varied, and most of the great Polish treats we'd enjoyed earlier nowhere to be found. We tried to assemble sandwiches from plain rolled ham and cut slices of bread and vegetables, tried chunks of good smoked and bland boiled kielbasa, and found ourselves talking about how the drinks, particularly a truly great, surprisingly smooth Sobieski Vodka and Tonic we'd picked up at the bar for only $3, were better than anything we'd eaten there. Only some decent carrot cake at the end saved the meal; pieces of denser banana spice cake were comparatively bad.
Our evening ended a lot differently than we'd expected when we started the day: as we left Potts at 7:15pm, we decided not to get on one of the shuttle buses, and therefore not to party so late that we'd be unable to work the next day - Dyngus Day venues were, after all, going to be open until the wee hours of the morning, and free taxis were being offered to those who needed rides home after drunken revelry. Instead, we swung by a store, grabbed a $5 bottle of the Sobieski we'd tried at the bar, and made some wonderful drinks for ourselves in the comfort of our own home. The event's organizers and sponsors had clearly succeeded: whether in restaurants, bars, or at home, loud or quiet, sober or drunk, people all across Western New York were finding even more to love about all things Polish than they knew was possible only days before. If only this celebration was on a Friday...
What about you? Did you participate in Dyngus Day? What did you do, and how did you like it? We'd love to hear your comments.