"Sausage is a great deal like life. You get out of it about what you put into it." Jimmy Dean
The Cleveland Polish Boy is a specialty found in many bars, barbecue joints, chicken shacks, and hot dog stands in The Forest City (when did it get that unlikely nickname?). The sandwich is a similarly unlikely combo of a sausage on a bun, topped with fries, slathered with sweet red barbecue sauce, and crowned with cole slaw. Not necessarily in that order.
In 2008 Esquire magazine dubbed the one at Freddie's Southern Style Rib House "soul on white" and one of the best sandwiches in America (alas, it is now closed). According to Douglas Trattner in Cleveland Scene, the first Polish Boy was fashioned by Virgil Whitmore, of Whitmore's Bar-B-Q in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in the 1940s. Cleveland's Chef Michael Symon cited the sandwich from the Seti's Polish Boy food truck as "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" on the Food Network.
The sausage is called a kielbasa or Polie in Cleveland, and many are made of beef. In Poland, the word kielbasa (pronounced "kew-ba-sa" in Polish) is a generic word for sausage, so it can be both pork or beef, but the most famous is the Polska Kielbasa Wedzona, Polish Smoked Sausage. In Poland more than 100 sausages are regulated by the Polish Bureau of Standards. The Polska Kielbasa Wedzona must be no less than 80% pork, no more than 20% beef, fat, salt, pepper, sugar, garlic, and marjoram. Many are all pork. The meat is cured with sodium nitrite before it is coarsely ground, mixed with the spices, stuffed into hog casings, and then smoked.
In the US, butchers make "kielbasa" and "Polish sausage" (sometimes called "Polies") to their tastes with their favorite ingredients.The blends vary significantly, although my favorites are pork based and smoked. The best are fatter than a hot dog and made with coarsely ground pork and highly seasoned with garlic and black pepper. My faves are the Chicago Maxwell Street Polish style (Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Poland). The Vienna Beef brand is widely available in stores and on Amazon and Bobak's, a pork beef blend, is available on the internet. A good nationally available example is the Hillshire Farms Polska Kilebasa, made with medium grind pork, beef, and turkey. It is more than 1" thick.
For the Polish Boy, the sausage can be grilled or griddled, and some are even flash fried after cooking to give the casing extra snap. There are variations. Chili sauce has appeared on some, cheese on others, hot sauce on many, and a few swap the slaw for kraut. I've even heard of a Polish Girl that has pulled pork on top! Noting the creative license taken in Cleveland, I took some liberties with my interpretation.
I don't do much deep frying at home, especially for a small quantity, and, although one can come close to good French fies in the oven, I make my Polish Boy with oven baked Tater Tots because they stay crunchy longer than fries. The original Polish Boy calls for sweet red barbecue sauce, but when I see pork sausage, I reach for mustard. I just happen to think mustard is better on a Polie than ketchup based sauce. To make it authentic, you should use the original Bertman Ballpark Mustard, the official mustard of the Indians and the Browns and it has been in just about every fridge in Cleveland since 1925. Finally, most of the Cleveland versions use a creamy cole slaw, but I think my Sweet Sour Slaw does a much better job of cutting the fat and brightening the whole thing up.
Improved Polish Boy Recipe
Takes. 45 minutes
Makes. 4 sandwiches
About the hoagy rolls. You can use hot dog buns, but they will disintegrate quickly. You need something more substantial to stand up to all the juice.
About the sausage. If you can't find a good Polie, get a good bratwurst and hot smoke it. Then grill or griddle it til it is crispy.
1) Follow the instructions on the bag and bake the Tater Tots, usually about 30 minutes at 425°F.
2) Open the rolls and toast them on the grill. Try to keep the hinge intact in order to hold everything in.
3) Grill raw sausages til brown and crunchy outside and at least 155°F inside. If the sausage has been precooked or smoked, you only need to go to 145°F.
4) Usually the slaw goes on top of the sausage, but then it gets contaminated by the BBQ sauce, and I like to keep its integrity. So I lay down the slaw first, then the sausage, then the sauce, then the Tots.