Google the Polish Boy and you'll likely spot blurbs crowning it Cleveland's signature sandwich, or where to score the best version of this culturally significant food, or how this odd mashup of kielbasa, coleslaw, french fries and barbecue sauce in a bun has been praised once again in the national media (by Michael Symon, Food Network, Serious Eats, Esquire ... the list goes on and on).
But what you won't likely read is how we got here. Seriously: We checked the Plain Dealer's full archives and found only a handful of mentions of the Polish Boy, and in each case it was simply a colloquial way to refer to a kielbasa on a bun. (For example, a 1986 piece on streetside vendors queried one stand on the difference between a hot dog and a Polish Boy, and the vendor's "knowing reply" was, "One's bigger.") There was no origin story, no deep dive into the history of a particular cook or restaurant or person who first dreamt of slapping fries and BBQ sauce on the kielbasa. Whereas Philadelphia's cheesesteak or Chicago's Italian beef or Detroit's coney have legendary stories and robust accounts of their births, the Polish Boy just seemed to pop up one day without much to-do and simply became part of the city's culinary landscape.
History on the topic is scarce, as you can see, but what we can gather is that the sandwich was probably an invention of convenience dreamt up by a resourceful barbecue restaurant owner named Virgil Whitmore, who opened the original Whitmore's Bar-B-Q in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood back in the 1940s. Working with a smoked beef sausage that was a cross between a hot dog and a true Polish kielbasa, Whitmore combined ingredients that he already had on hand — coleslaw, french fries and his beloved barbecue sauce — to come up with this delicious mess of a sandwich.
Various family members went on to open other barbecue shops, including additional Whitmore's locations as well as Mt. Pleasant BBQ on Kinsman, which opened in 1977 and is currently operated by Virgil Whitmore's grandson Larry Turner. When asked where the Polish Boy originated, Turner responds, "It wasn't Poland, that's for sure!" But, he adds, his shop has been doing them since Day 1, and they're still one of the most popular items going.
Other barbecue joints in town, most notably Hot Sauce Williams, which opened in 1963, have also been serving up Polish Boys for as long as we can recall. One of the best versions around is sold out of a truck almost permanently moored at Dean Supply called Seti's Polish Boys. Owner Seti Martinez says that when he launched his truck 15 years ago he decided to specialize in Polish Boys, admitting that he was a good 50 years behind on the trend.
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. Banter (bantercleveland.com) in Detroit Shoreway makes a deluxe version with housemade kielbasa, slaw, frites and sauce, while Cajun-minded Battiste and Dupree (battisteanddupreecajungrill.com) in South Euclid serves up a more traditional take. If you're near the Map Room downtown, give the Drew Carey a try. It's a Polish Boy that swaps the kielbasa for an all-beef hot dog topped with BBQ sauce, slaw and fries.
More on the sandwich:A Cleveland Journey Through Our Favorite Things Between Two Slices of Bread