Tiina Mall meets Lidia Patkowski, an owner of a southwest Polish food cart.
Three weeks ago, I was walking along Southwest 10th Avenue going to my favorite Thai food cart, I Like Thai, where they serve some of the best Thai iced-tea—and that’s coming from someone who has been to Thailand numerous times.
As I waited for my food, I started to look a bit farther down the street and saw a woman with a genuinely-friendly and kind face. Her smile was so warm it seemed to pull me towards her. She was sitting in front of one of the food stalls wearing an apron.
Curiously, I read her cart’s sign out loud: Traditional Polish Cuisine- Euro Dish. The woman smiled and called out to me in a thick Polish accent, “Best Polish sausage in Portland.”
But, I had already ordered Thai that day.
Today, I finally returned to Lidia’s cart to find out a bit more about her story, her love for food and people, and to taste the food she makes. I asked her if she would share more of her story with me.
Five years ago, Lidia Patkowski was also walking along Southwest 10th Avenue and Southwest Alder when she came upon a group of Portland’s famous food carts. As she looked around she couldn’t find a Polish food cart.
Lidia pauses in her story to look at me with something between an indignant and mischievous glint in her eye. Then, she animatedly raises her hands and says, “I saw a couple food carts. . . no Polish food . . . and I thought, ‘Why not?!’ So I got the idea to open one.”
I ask her how long ago that was, and Lidia – complete with her trademark smiling – leaning with a sparkle in her eye, embarks on another short story.
She opened just a few months after she got the idea to start a food cart. Lidia has been cooking wholesome traditional Polish recipes for Portland for the past five years.
Lidia bought a trailer on concession: “I like my trailer,” she says. “It’s good, and I can cook. I love to cook!”
She looks around and takes in the street atmosphere, and tells me that another joy-of-cooking for her food cart is the friends she makes. She smiles at me: “Especially, I like the friends who like my food,” she winks.
To help me remember how many years she’s been open, she explains to me that her favorite number is five.
“Five is a good number, no? Five is my favorite number.”
She tells me that when she was a girl her maiden name started with a B and that made her number five in her class roll call. She liked being number five.
“See? Now you’ll remember.” And on the 6th of December this year, “See, six comes after five” is her fifth year food cart anniversary.
A customer stops by.
I step aside to make room for the customer to order from Lidia. Another customer cues up as well. While I wait to continue my conversation with Lidia, I look at the food photos around her trailer window, and I catch up with my notes.
The customer waiting to order asks what I’m doing. I explain I’m writing a food review and a short feature about Lidia and her business. He nods and says that is really good. He looks very serious as he recommends the dumplings: “They’re amazing!” The customer in front of him leaves. He orders a pork schnitzel sandwich and… of course… dumplings.
The customers leave. Lidia and I continue our conversation.
She asks me if I like to cook.
I answer, “Yes, I love to cook, but I don’t know much about restaurant cooking styles.”
She lifts her hands, palms up, and shakes her head telling me that is ok. She explains that everyone just needs a specialty.
“Homemade food is my specialty,” Lidia notes. She points to the name Euro Dish. “That’s the name, but the important part is “Traditional Polish Cuisine,” she says pointing above the name on her cart.
Her voice emphasises the word traditional. She shares with me that all her recipes are Polish family recipes.
“I learned to cook from my Mama and my older sister,” Lidia shares.
She says people don’t want to make the traditional dishes because it takes a lot of time, “but I enjoy it.”
We pause our conversation again as another customer orders.
I can smell the food. My mouth is watering. I’m going to need to try this.
“With mustard?” She asks the man. He nods. As she hands him his food, she exclaims “Mmmm… Fresh Schnitzel!” She encourages the customer in his first bite. He seems more than satisfied.
Lidia prepares a sampler plate for me.
As another customer orders, I try Lidia’s cooking for the first time.
“Oh my goodness!” I inhale. “This is SO, SO, SO DELICIOUS!!!”
I try each dish she has given me, and I am at a loss for words. All I can do is nod and say “good” or “delicious.” She smiles as she prepares the other customer’s dish – Schnitzel sandwich for the gorgeous and petite lady in the black dress.
Even though it’s not the homemade Indian food I grew up with, Lidia’s cooking gives me the same comfort and warmth deep in my belly as my mouth is also flooded with flavor.
I want to keep eating, but I also want to hear more stories from Lidia. So before I leave to finish my food, I ask her to tell me one more story.
“Please, tell me one of your memories of learning how to cook,” I request as I smile at her already fond of her in a way similar to how I enjoy my Auntie’s company.
Lidia made her first cheesecake when she was about 17. She was so excited. It looked perfect and it smelled delicious. All she had left to do was let it set and then take it out of the pan and put it on the glass dessert platter.
Her older sister’s husband came into the kitchen. He wanted to help her. “Here, here let me help you,” he said.
Before she had time to explain that he had to wait to transfer the cake from the pan to the platter, he had excitedly already taken hold of it. . . and the beautiful cheesecake went splat all over the floor! Lidia cried.
Her brother-in-law and her family told her not to worry, and that she would be able to make many, many more cheesecakes.
Since that event she has, and has done so with artful hands.
I order cheesecake to take back for my roommate. Before I leave, I thank Lidia for her time and our lovely conversation. As I walk away, a friend meets up with me. I can’t stop talking about Lidia and her food.
Thank you Lidia for your amazing contribution to Portland’s 200 and something food carts. I am very glad that out of so many choices, I found yours.
Dziekuje! (Lidia taught me how to say “thank you” in Polish).
–Tiina Mall is “Arts & Culture” editor of Muse and a senior Communication Studies major at Multnomah University.