I had never heard of Janina's Cafe before l last week. It's not a restaurant with a storied mythology or a celebrity chef. It's not in a popular neighbourhood or on a convenient nearby corner. It, like dozens of other tiny mom-and-pop places that pepper the city, anonymous and unheralded, is just a small storefront with a take-out counter, a handful of tables and regular customers who perhaps look at it as their happy little secret.
It's not the location that attracted me to Janina's---I can't remember the the last time someone said, "Hey, where should we get lunch?" and I said, "Burnside!"---but once I heard about it, it seemed like it would be worth the trip. Janina's, it was said, has Polish food on the menu. And perhaps it's because I have a special fondness for eastern European food, but Polish food is worth a bus ride. So I meet my friend Rachelle, who works in Burnside, for lunch.
The restaurant is small, nothing more than a take-out counter full of hot and cold trays, some drink fridges and a few tables scattered by the tall windows. Some more tables are just outside the main room, in what feels like a hallway. It all adds up to a dreary description, but it's actually quite cheerful inside, mainly due to the friendly server behind the counter, who welcomes us with a big smile and chipper "Hello."
A chalkboard menu outlines the assortment of salads, sandwiches and homemade lunch goods. The day's special is cabbage rolls ($6.99), served with a freshly baked roll. Rachelle is immediately sold. I decide on two pies with Caesar salad ($7.49), but ask if it's possible to substitute one of the meat pies for a spinach pie, which is another option on the menu. Our server gives a shout back to the kitchen to make sure it's OK, and gives the thumbs up.
We stand around as our server gets busy making the Caesar out of some fresh romaine, a thick, mayonnaise-y dressing, bacon bits and a heaping handful of mozzarella. The pies are warming up in the oven. We grab a couple of cans of pop ($1.03) out of the fridge while she pulls two thick cabbage rolls out of a warming plate and drizzles them with the tomato sauce they are sitting in. She finishes up the plate by spreading a huge knob of butter into a warm roll.
Once the pies are out of the oven, we head out to the hallway area to eat. It's like a small, quiet cafeteria. Just as we are ready to sit down, one of the servers runs out and offers to clean up the table for us since he knows someone had just been there. We thank him, he leaves with an "Enjoy!" and we sit down to eat.
The cabbage rolls are savoury and delicious, thick with ground beef and rice. The tomato sauce is mild, and just acidic enough to offer a nice complement to the cabbage. And the fresh roll is fantastic. It reminds me of the heavenly split rolls my mother makes. The entire meal has a comforting, made-by-mom feel to it.
The pies---which are essentially fatayer--- are great. The meat pie is a simple, but nicely seasoned ground beef mix, while the spinach one has tasty chunks of onion, and a touch of chili in the background. The crust is thick and satisfying, with a nice, baked crispness on the outside. The only thing I don't like is the salad. The fake bacon glows an unnatural red, there is too much cheese, and the dressing is too goopy for my taste. The pies were incredibly filling, so I don't mind leaving it mostly uneaten.
I still don't know if my answer to, "Hey, where do you want to have lunch?" is going to be "Burnside," but if I'm in that neighbourhood, there's a good chance I'll say "Janina's."