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Polish Boy 101: A Short History of Cleveland's Seminal Sandwich and the New Wave of Places Serving It Up

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Chances are good that the first Polish Boy you ever ate came courtesy of Seti Martinez, who spent the past decade parked out front of Dean Supply, the restaurant equipment warehouse on Woodland. His familiar white box truck, now moored wherever the mood strikes him, has sold more of Cleveland's signature sandwiches over the past 10 years than likely all other vendors combined. That's not only because they're some of the best versions around, it's that until recently, the sandwiches just haven't been that widely available.

Despite the fact that the Polish Boy supposedly is "Cleveland's Signature Sandwich," there hasn't exactly been a bumper crop of places at which to order and enjoy them. Largely confined to local barbecue chains like Whitmore's and Hot Sauce Williams, these two-fisted belly bombs seemed to be attracting more attention from outside our region than from within. Michael Symon gushed about them on the Food Network, Anthony Bourdain addressed them on No Reservations, Adam Richman pounded one on Man vs. Food, Esquire magazine included it in a list of America's best sandwiches, and Serious Eats seriously considered it.

But thanks to a fresh wave of sausage-loving chefs and restaurant owners, we are seeing a bona fide resurgence — and improvement — of the gut-busting, shirt-staining Polish Boy. At new places like Mabel's BBQ, Banter and Picnic, diners can sit back and relax with delightful, delicious versions of the bunned wonder.

Given that the sandwich holds such an esteemed place in our gastronomic history, one would expect reams of documentation on its origin and development. But there hasn't been a lot written about the history of this seminal sandwich, which is odd given our fascination with all things food in this city. Depending on who you asked and when you asked them, the term "Polish Boy" might have referred to one of four different things: a young male from Poland, a Polish-style sausage, a Polish-style sausage in a bun, and the now-famous sandwich of the same name.

With respect to the last connotation, my research pointed me to Virgil Whitmore as the originator. Whitmore launched his first barbecue shop in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood back in the 1940s before opening the more popular Whitmore's Bar-B-Q at East 85th and Cedar. Whitmore's grandson Larry Turner, who now runs Mt. Pleasant BBQ, says that it was his grandad who first decided to combine ingredients that he already had on hand — bun, sausage, coleslaw, fries, barbecue sauce — into the infamous and famously messy sandwich.

We recently lost Freddie's Southern Style Rib House and Steve's Lunch, two popular destinations for the classic sandwich, but others are picking up the torch. In addition to classic spots like Whitmore's, Hot Sauce Williams, Mt. Pleasant and B & M, new barbecue joints like the Rib Cage, and Picnic, the casual sausage-themed eatery in the 5th Street Arcades, are doing a brisk business in Polish Boys.

Order the Polish Boy at Banter, the poutine, sausage, and bottle shop emporium in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, and you'll be rewarded with a stellar version built around juicy, house-made kielbasa. The grilled sausage is tucked into a split-top bun and crowned with slaw, perfect fries and sauce. If guests at Mabel's BBQ downtown can pry themselves away from the ribs and brisket, they might consider ordering the Polish Girl, a classic twist that introduces smoked pork to the party. Built atop a chassis of kielbasa from longtime West Side Market butcher J & J Czuchraj is a filling sandwich topped with coleslaw and sauce. Over at Picnic, the Polish Boy starts with char-grilled smoked pork sausage, which is capped with fries, slaw and sauce. At the popular Warehouse District bar Map Room, guests can order the Drew Carey, a version of the Polish Boy that swaps the kielbasa for an all-beef hot dog topped with BBQ sauce, slaw and fries.

Wherever you get it, just be sure to ask for extra napkins.

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