Updated June 23
When you visit Spruce Street Harbor Park this summer, take a brief vacation from the relentless pursuit of all things local and artisanal. Because one of the best snacks sold on the pop-up boardwalk by the Delaware is actually something found in a supermarket freezer: Mrs. T’s Pierogies.
They’re offered at Froman’s, the Garces Group-run concession out on the barge area of the beer garden, and they’re hands down delicious.
Of course, the dish isn’t just any old boring preparation of Mrs. T’s — though to be honest, these factory-made Polish dumplings from Shenandoah, Pa., are the rare class of pre-packaged products that satisfy when simply dumped in a pot and boiled. But no. Not here, not at a Garces operation.
These pierogies — big, classic cheddar-potato ones — come “chicken-fried” (aka coated in a crisp buttermilk batter) and served with ranch dressing for $6. Bite in and you get crunch, then chew, then the burst of a hot, creamy center.
How’d one of Philly’s star chefs end up serving a grocery store item?
Basically, folks from Mrs. T’s — which is one of the most prolific pierogi producers in the country, selling something like 580 million of them annually — approached Jose Garces and asked him to create a set of recipes.
He agreed — “I was very excited… Mrs. T’s is such a beloved brand,” Garces wrote via email — and his name now graces four different preparations in the recipe library on the company’s website. There’s Chicken-Fried Pierogies (an American-inspired preparation), Pierogies Poblanos (Mexican-inspired), Szechuan-Style Pierogies (Chinese), and Pierogies Piccata (Italian). Each one uses a different base dumpling, and then has instructions for creating a sauce, adding vegetables or spices, and preparing the dish as a full meal. Bonus: The chicken-fried recipe also provides the secret to homemade ranch dressing.
“The chicken-fried pierogies are just the perfect finger food,” Garces explained, “and worked so well with the other items on the menu at Froman’s.”
When it was announced, the collaboration raised some eyebrows. It seemed craven and corporate, reminiscent of the moves by that antagonist chef in the movie Ratatouille, who is on his way to trashing a great restaurant’s reputation by emblazoning the name on frozen food packages for profit.
But there are counterpoints to the hate.
First, this isn’t some random, faceless, greed-driven corporation Garces agreed to work with. Mrs. T’s was founded in 1952 in the same Schuylkill County town where it’s now operated by one Ted Twardzik, who took his mother’s recipe and figured out how to mass-produce it. And it’s still owned by his son Tom. Second, it’s not like Garces has ever been averse to commercial branding — his name is on plenty of hotel and casino restaurants across the country. Third, there’s a charity component. For every order sold at Froman’s, Mrs. T’s will donate $1 to the Garces Foundation (up to $2,000 total), which facilitates programs for Philly’s immigrant communities.
Lastly, the recipes work. In fact, the chicken-fried pierogies have been such a hit already at SSHP that Garces decided to also offer them at the Balcony Bar, his pop-up on the roof of the Kimmel Center.
Why not? As Garces himself said: “I love pierogies!”