It's What's Inside That Counts: A New Twist On an Old Favorite in Gowanus

Detail from the wooden tables in Baba's Pierogies, Brooklyn.

Detail from the wooden tables in Baba's Pierogies, Brooklyn.

What can you put inside a pierogi? Anything at all, if you ask Helena Fabiankovic and Bob Gardiner, the couple behind the two-week-old restaurant, Baba’s Pierogies, an attractive and welcoming 10 seat space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. At Baba’s, which is named for Helena’s grandmother (Baba means grandma in Slovak), Helena and Bob serve up ten varieties of pierogies: eight savory and two dessert.  All are based on Baba’s original recipe, but most of the fillings veer away from tradition. They range from the traditional potato and sauerkraut to modern mash-ups like bacon & cheddar, jalapeno, and spinach & feta. Pierogies can be ordered boiled, tossed with butter and chives, or fried with sour cream served alongside. Various toppings and dips are available for a few cents extra. There are also some traditional Slovak salads, a few creative sandwiches, and kielbasy sausage to choose from. Beer and wine are coming soon. Graciously agreeing to be The Repast Project’s very first restaurant interviewee, Helena chatted with me about serving her grandmother’s pierogies to hungry masses of Brooklyn foodies. 

Boiled pierogies tossed in butter and chives, topped with mushrooms.

Boiled pierogies tossed in butter and chives, topped with mushrooms.

Grilled kielbasy, served with sauerkraut, mustard sauce, and slices of fresh bread.

Grilled kielbasy, served with sauerkraut, mustard sauce, and slices of fresh bread.

Helena grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where every Friday, she would gobble up her grandmother’s pierogies the moment they emerged, steaming, from the pot. Bob, whose father’s family originally came from the Czech Republic, grew up eating pierogies every Christmas with his Polish neighbors. Helena and her sister had always talked about starting a pierogi restaurant, but she says it was far from an actual plan.  “It’s not like we would make pierogies with grandma… . Actually, I was so bad at making them. It’s kind of funny that this is happening now.” Laughing, she was quick to add, “I obviously can do it now.”

Helena credits Bob’s motivation and their teamwork with bringing her childhood idea to life. After a summer catering out of their apartment, the two began work on the restaurant, but bringing home-cooking into a restaurant setting hasn’t always been simple. “I have to make sure that the food comes out as quick as it can. We don’t want to freeze food. We’re trying the best we can to keep it super homemade and handmade, and with that comes a little bit of a wait time.”  A first time restaurant owner, Helena says perseverance is key. “ It’s one thing to do it out of your apartment and have your friends, and your local bar, and your parents order food from you. It’s another thing to really be out in the public. [Serving this] food definitely feels like it is really personal. […] You are being critiqued the moment you open your doors. […] We’re trying the best we can to make everyone feel comfortable. We’re trying to get a gluten-free pierogi. We’re working on a vegan option. We want to have everyone feel welcome here and get a chance to try out our food."

Bob Gardiner and Helena Fabiankovic at their two-week-old pierogi restaurant, Baba's Pierogies, in Gowanus. 

Bob Gardiner and Helena Fabiankovic at their two-week-old pierogi restaurant, Baba's Pierogies, in Gowanus. 

When coming up with the fillings for their pierogies, Helena and Bob brainstormed over beers at their local Sunset Park bar. “We were just having fun with it. [We thought], just [be] open. […] Food’s meant to be enjoyable and fun and delicious. Pierogies aren’t from one place. They are not meant to be one way.” Pierogies, in fact, are popular all over Eastern Europe, from Poland to the Czech republic, to Slovakia, where Helena’s family hails from.

From the counter where you order, you can peer into the kitchen in the back, where dough is rolled and pierogies are being shaped and filled by hand. 

From the counter where you order, you can peer into the kitchen in the back, where dough is rolled and pierogies are being shaped and filled by hand. 

Perhaps because of their widespread popularity, it seems many people have strong feelings about pierogies. Despite overwhelmingly positive initial responses to the restaurant, a few of the criticisms have surprised Helena, like a complaint about the name not being Polish.  “It’s tricky,” Helena says, “I know everyone’s grandmother makes the best pierogies[….] I get that, and I don’t ever want to take that away from anyone, because I know that feeling. When it comes to pierogies…it’s such a memory. Just making them alone is such a process and an effort that you don’t forget it. That’s why we designed the space so you could see them being made. I thought that was the most important part of eating them. I wanted to have that experience here.”

And, for the most part, it seems like Helena and Bob are on to something. On their opening day, lines formed outside, and they’ve already been featured in Time Out NY and various popular blogs. When I asked Helena what she thinks it is about their concept that resonates with diners, she said, “The food we’re putting out reminds me of being at home and at my grandmother’s house, so that’s part of the whole experience. I think that people come in here and they do feel like they are at home. I think that’s really important.”

Helena’s grandparents, along with her mom and two uncles, came to the USA from Slovakia in the late ‘60s. Initially, each grandparent worked two jobs so the family could get by; now in their mid-eighties, Helena’s grandparents still live in the house they bought 40 years ago in Sunset Park, and Baba rides the bus to Gowanus every day to help make the pierogies.  When I arrived, she smiled at me from the kitchen, where she was stationed behind a sheet of dough, kerchief on head, and pearls around her neck. Helena told me, “She’s really excited that she taught Bob how to make [the pierogies,] and now [she says] he makes them better than she does.”

Baba's is clearly a labor of love: a map of Europe and old family photos on the wall are among the many personal touches that make Baba's an inviting place for a satisfying meal. 

Baba's is clearly a labor of love: a map of Europe and old family photos on the wall are among the many personal touches that make Baba's an inviting place for a satisfying meal. 

When I asked Helena how Baba feels about the new creative flavors, she said she likes the twists on the classic recipe. Helena explained her philosophy on carrying on and reinterpreting her grandma’s old world traditions: “I grew up in a Slovak family, and we’d go to Slovakia every summer. You come back, and you try to do [things] exactly the way [they are in Slovakia]. But … I have to make some changes to suit my life. It’s too much pressure to have everything be exactly the way it is there. I realized it doesn’t work for me. That can also be upsetting when you realize, ‘I’m not being the Slovak that I wanted to be.’ To be able to hold on to something but to change it to make it work for you I think is awesome. Because I can still be who I am, I can still hold on to my background, and be able to live in Brooklyn and do what I’m doing.[…] I am American, but I am very much Slovak because of my background. I feel like this really shows that, and I’m really proud of that.”

Of the restaurant, she says she hopes that the positive buzz will last, but “whatever happens in the end, it’s gonna be really amazing that I even got this far with it."

Baba's Pierogies:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    295 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215; (718) 222–0777; www.babasbk.com;  T-Su 11:30-10:00pm CLOSED MONDAYS

I'd love to know what you think: Are there traditional foods from your family's heritage that you like to cook with a modern spin? Tell me about it in the comments below.