The times of yearning for exotic tastes and the first Chinese food joints popping up in the neighborhood are long gone. At last, we live in the era when aromatic ramens and poke bowls are only an arm’s length away. After three decades, Asian cuisine has finally made itself at home on the plates and in the hearts of Kraków citizens. Kasia Pilitowska, a local explorer of taste and culture, takes us on a fascinating trip to places where flavors from the far east reign supreme.
Nobody remembers when the first Chinese food joint opened in Kraków, just like nobody seems to recall why it is still being called "Chinese" despite its visibly "Vietnamese" profile… What everybody knows very well, however, is that the place has not closed since its inception and continues to welcome guests on Stradom street. The interior does not differ from what we can see in similar joints across the country and neither does the smell…Still, back in the days of understocked stores all-too-rare restaurants, the very reading of the menu was as exciting as purchasing a new pair of Levi’s. Hong Hai Bar sold dreams. Dreams of far-away journeys brought to life in the form of Pho Xao Bo, Tôm Chiên, Pad Thai and spring rolls – all made by the chef Hoang Dam who, for many years, had worked in the five-star hotel Thang Loi in Hanoi. Because of the long-lasting smell that used to stay on our clothes once you entered the place, we would usually randomly pick one of us who then left their jacket and sweater with us and went inside to order. When the food was ready, we would go nearby and sit by the river, enjoying the taste and dreaming of night markets in Vietnam. I loved it.
The almost identical Asian food joints reigned supreme for decades. However, there was one place that served specifically Indian cuisine – Indus Tandor on Sławkowska – opened to this day. I remember how I reveled in the heavenly flavor of kadhai paneer and the crispiness of roti. The opening of the first sushi bar – Edo Sushi – today known as “old” EDO located in Kazimierz – unsurprisingly, was an event comparable to the coming of the Chinese emperor. What distinguishes EDO from other sushi bars is its commitment to traditional principles of Japanese cuisine and products. It has now been expanded with three Asia Deli stores, two of which offer space where you can sit and enjoy your food. All those years ago, the opening of EDO saw the first exotic swallow fly over the roofs of Kraków.
Colorful and with an original twist, it popped up in Kraków in the modest form of Youmiko sushi bar hidden in the courtyard of a tenement house at Mały Rynek. Ascetic interior, unorthodox ceramics, and – most importantly – the chance to witness the birth of appetizing rolls first hand, continue attracting crowds. Today, the bar is located at Józefa 2 in Kazimierz and is known for Sunday-special vegan sushi. Their eggplant cake, another variation on gunkan, or nigiri with marinated tomatoes – are simply to die for. Menu also includes such classics as uromaki, hosomaki, sashimi and miso as well as natural wines and sake. You may want to raise your head up to appreciate the ceiling décor – one thousand cards with notes scribbled in Japanese.
Youmiko Sushi, Józefa 2
Ka Udon Bar & Sushi
Broth, the emperor of the palate
It goes without saying that a regular Sunday dinner at mom’s wouldn’t be the same without chicken broth. And if you happen to be a fan of Asian cuisine, you know too well you fancy a bowl of soup on your menu – be it udon, ramen, or pho. Ka Udon Bar & Sushi is a real mecca of taste – as much for the palate as for the eyes. The place is all-vegan, with a short menu exhibiting strong attentiveness to detail. You can see an eccentric owner and a group of people working in the kitchen that opens onto a sophisticated interior. Thick, meaty udon noodles are made from scratch in front of hungry visitors. The menu includes kitsune, udon noodles in hot broth served with sweet ginger and spring onion, zaru, cold udon, tempura, and sushi sets. You should also add to it a rich selection of natural wines and delicious coffee from their own roastery – Karma. During summer, you can enjoy aromatic food from a Japanese grill standing on the patio. The taste of smoked vegetables is like no other.
Ka Udon Bar & Sushi, ul. Rakowicka 14 A
…has overcome Kraków and it looks like it isn’t going anywhere. Ramen People and Akita Ramen are the two must-tries: the first serving more than ten types of ramen with homemade noodles (a rarity!) and the second luring with a one-of-a-kind view of the river with historic architecture of Kazimierz and the towers of Wawel in the background. On the menu you will also find a salad with wakame, kimchi, spicy cucumbers, natto – fermented soy seeds – and seasonal rice bowls. Akita Ramen, on the other hand, apart from their flagship dish, serves hoisin ribs, tempura shrimps, beef heart tartare, and pak choi dango – pak choi cabbage stuffed with a beef-shrimp filling. It’s worth noting that both spots offer vegan ramen options. Also, there are exceptionally long lines on weekends, which should be enough of an indicator as to the quality of food served.
Asia at its tiniest
What I like the most about Asian food joints in Kraków is their compact nature – a few tables and a short menu. And don’t be surprised if you meet the owner standing behind the counter, that’s also quite characteristic. Discovering the richness of these places brimming with colorful dishes and rich smells is like discovering the diversity of Asian countries. Let’s start with Wiệtnam – a tiny bar in Podgórze that opened a year ago and already enjoys an impressive number of faithful fans. Run by a Polish-Vietnamese family with the mother having the last word in the kitchen, the place is all about classics: Cha Nem (meat and vegetable spring rolls), pho soup, an absolute gem – Tom Tam com (breaded shrimps), Bun Cha (selection of grilled meat), and famous fried calamari. Worth a closer look is a lovely shrine with goods for Vietnamese gods.
Wiệtnam, ul. Kazimierza Brodzińskiego 2
Run by the same Korean-born owners since inception, Oriental Spoon and Mandu are the veteran twins specializing in Korean cuisine. Oriental Spoon is famous for bibimbap, a perfect blend of rice and vegetables served with meat of choice – bulgogi (beef), calamari, bacon, curry chicken – or vegan options such as fried egg or tofu. All brought to you in an easy-to-carry box. Mandu serves traditional Korean steamed dumplings with a variety of fillings: meat & vegetable, shrimp, tofu, and seasonal vegetables. Bao buns have recently been added to the menu and we also recommend you consider trying their kimchi – prepared on site.
In case you’re wondering about the tiniest Asian food bar in Kraków – square-meter-wise – it’s definitely Pan Kim Bap. Located near Bednarski Park in Podgórze, this small marvel has a simple but moving origin story. Pan Kim Bap, a foreign student in the city, fell in love with a fair-haired Polish girl and decided to follow his heart. After two years of struggle with the Polish language, unsympathetic officials and arcane laws, he succeeded and opened a bar where he works with his wife and mother-in-law. Dishes they serve are honest and simple – made with love and passion: bibimbap with beef/fish or avocado and fried egg, japchae bap with sweet potato noodles, and Korean sushi. We suggest you ask for your food in a box and enjoy it in the neighboring park.
Pan Kim Bap, ul. Legionów Piłsudskiego 23
The Tokio Tower – a Kazimierz-based Japanese restaurant cheffed by Hokkaido-born Koji Onodera – specializes exclusively in curry and don. The menu offers six dishes, including such classics as katsu curry (curry with pork chop), butatamadon with thinly sliced pork – served with egg and rice – and a vegan version of the latter – tofudon – served with fried tofu. Each dish is brought to you with a tiny bowl of chicken broth and cucumbers marinated in salt and sugar (except for tofudon, which comes with an additional portion of cucumbers instead of broth).
The Tokio Tower, ul. Podbrzezie 2
Inspirations and peregrinations
The landscape of look-alike bars has exceptional gems of its own – beautiful places with menus bearing the trace of inspiration from far away journeys. Wschód Bar is a good point in case. Beautifully designed and overflowing with pink light, it offers deliciously grilled eggplants in ginger fermented soy sauce, wontons, delicate dumplings with Szechuan or Cantonese pork, tofu (in a filling made by the chef as a nod to vegetarians), baked pork wrapped in thin pancakes, dan dan – a Szechuan dish with noodles, meat-based sauce and Karaage – and the Japanese KFC: crispy breaded chicken with soy sauce and lemon. Everything matched with a glass of wine or one of the more unconventional drinks.
Wschód Bar, ul. Miodowa 4 pasaż
The top of the tops, Molam, brings to you the atmosphere of Bangkok canteens at night. Known as the culinary discovery of 2019, the place offers an original take on Thai cuisine. The chef, Tomek Muza, prepares all the ingredients himself: from curry pastes, sauces, chili jams to spice blends. His cuisine, “Nu-Thai”, is based on original recipes brought to life with the use of local products of the finest quality. Hence, the menu includes local white cabbage, baked brussels sprouts, and kale. Also, all dishes are served in a way that makes it possible to share them with others. I recommend having aromatic thick rice with your dish – it’s worth it. Cocktails mixed with fresh fruit come as an icing on the cake. I love this interior full of tasty details and designer items… including a retro chain-flush toilet.
Molam, ul. Rajska 3-4
It’s also Asia!
Last but not least, attention is due to all the places in Kraków serving Georgian and Indian cuisines. When it comes to Georgian flavors, two restaurants are the winners: Tbilisuri and GMT – Georgian Wine & Art Gallery. Tbilisuri is likely to win you over with with its badridżani – heavenly eggplant rolls with peanut filling – Khachapuri, lula kababi, szkweruli, and absolutely gorgeous vegetable goulash – andżapsandali. GMT, run by a talented Georgian-born chef Keti Prangulaishvili, specializes in wines from Georgia and Lesser Poland, the taste of which is only enriched with Kati’s exquisite cuisine, including the extraordinary khinkali.
The Masala Roll Factory
When it comes to Indian cuisine, I will give you a few subjective recommendations because, from what I’ve noticed, people’s tastes don’t always match. Hariprasad Samosa & Curry is an aromatic nook brimming with crispy, hot samosas with seasonally-changing vegan fillings and incredible curry. By far, the best Indian street food in Kraków. Recently, however, it has been joined by The Masala Roll Factory, known for kati rolls originating from Kolkata in West Bengal, and a much-anticipated food truck run by a famous Indian chef Sheuli Bhowal known for her family recipes. At Sheuli’s, you can have Kabuli Dum Biryani – chickpeas with potatoes and tomato-date chutney – Peneer Butter Masala, Indian paneer cheese served in creamy tomato sauce, and saffron lassi.
Get ready to embark on a flavorful journey through Asia without leaving the beautiful, old Kraków. Enjoy!
Text: Kasia Pilitowska
Photos: Courtesy of restaurants