Sacrificing her native Poland's meaty meals came easily to Bogusia Antczak when she moved to Oregon and married a vegetarian.
"The meat did not taste like the meat in Poland whatsoever," she says. "When I grew up in Poland, everything was organic; when I left, everything was organic."
Antczak says she couldn't justify preparing vegetarian foods for just one member of the family, even without her aversion to meats sold in American supermarkets with synthetic chemicals, hormones and preservatives. So she adapted traditional Polish dishes into meatless meals for the whole family, buying as many organic ingredients as possible and learning about farming methods in the United States.
"I just replaced meat parts with beans and grains and veggies," she says. "It was actually a lot fun and a challenge."
No longer vegetarian but just as health-conscious, Antczak, 54, still welcomes the challenge of preparing lighter versions of authentic Polish recipes at her new Talent restaurant. Julek's Polish Kitchen quickly built a reputation since opening last fall for fare with distinctive yet wholesome flavors.
"It's so different from other restaurants' food," says Antczak.
The restaurant is named for Antczak's father, who died two years ago but loved visiting the Rogue Valley and always wanted a food-related business of his own.
"We always ate very well," she says. "He was a hunter — he hunted for the meat."
Antczak learned the restaurateur's way at her aunt's establishment near the Baltic Sea. Convenience foods have since changed the culinary landscape of Poland, where fast food now is commonplace and groceries are very similar to those in the U.S., says Antczak. Julek's menu, however, pays homage to the era of her grandmother, Aniela, who baked bread from rye, oat and buckwheat flours in a brick oven.
"It's a very old recipe," says Antczak, explaining that some Julek's customers come just for bread, priced at $7 per loaf.
"We bake our homemade bread every day; I use all organic flour."
Serving as many organically grown vegetables as possible, Antczak says she buys about 90 percent of Julek's produce at Ashland Food Co-op, Shop'n Kart and — in season — local farmers markets. Julek's meat is primarily locally raised, natural and sustainable, purchased at The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point, despite its higher cost.
"Many people do appreciate that," she says.
And many no doubt appreciate Julek's use of whole grains, including barley and buckwheat, traditional in Poland but virtually unknown when Antczak arrived in the U.S. more than two decades ago. While Julek's chicken cabbage roles contain rice, her vegetarian version is bulked up with barley.
"Those grains are very old grains, but they are so good for you," says Antczak. "So it's nice that people know them now."
For people who know Polish food primarily as meat and potatoes, there's plenty of those on Julek's menu, too. Taylor's Sausage in Cave Junction manufactures Julek's "homemade" kielbasa to Antczak's specifications. But plans are afoot to make fresh, unsmoked sausage — smaller and more slender than kielbasa — in Julek's own kitchen.
Goulash with grass-fed beef and bacon — or chicken breast and turkey bacon — comes with a potato cake. And pierogi, Poland's iconic dumpling, are potato- and cheese-stuffed, although there's sauerkraut pierogi, as well as spinach and garlic, one of Antczak's early vegetarian adaptations.
"I love them," says customer Karolina Wyszynska Lavagnino, an Ashland exercise instructor and ultra-distance runner. "She tries to incorporate a little bit of a healthier twist."
Also a native of Poland, Wyszynska Lavagnino attests that Julek's food is "100-percent authentic." She touts the "amazing pickles" and supremely traditional salad with cabbage and beets.
"We (in Poland) don't have access to those veggies half of the year," she says of delicate greens and heat-loving crops.
Beet-based borscht is another Polish staple, and Julek's is awash with potatoes, carrots, celery and parsley in magenta-hued chicken broth.
"They really bleed a lot," says Antczak of the organic beets she uses. "The beets are such a superfood."
More seasonal vegetable specials are in store, as well as Polish preparations of fruits, including soup served "icy cold" and blueberry and plum pierogi with sour cream or yogurt, says Antczak.
"We're going to keep making different filling," she says of her pierogies.
Filling customer demand for savory crepes will complement the existing menu's dessert crepes. Her to-do list, says Antczak, keeps growing courtesy of customers who have traveled to Poland and fondly mention dishes they tasted there. Those who "don't have a clue" about Polish food soon can look for a sampler plate of Julek's most popular items: cabbage rolls, pierogi and goulash.
Regardless of the dish, diners can count on it being prepared when they order it, not plated from steam trays or warming ovens. Antczak, who personally does almost all the cooking, insisted on her brand-new kitchen's visibility from the dining room, showcasing the care taken with every order.
"I do not have a microwave — it destroys our health," says Antczak. "We just try to feed our customers the way we eat at home."