Julia Hlinka always had a knack for business. Back in Communist-run Czechoslovakia, she and her husband would wait until nightfall and then stealthily sneak two hours to the Polish border. There, they would covertly trade buttons and shoes for restricted goods such as fabric and animals. Sometimes a bottle of alcohol would appear at those nocturnal gatherings; a Roma man would strike up his fiddle, and the dancing would begin.
“Life was really hard, but life was also a party,” Julia recalls of those difficult years. “You found release wherever you could.”
When not sidestepping the Soviets, however, Julia spent most of her time in the kitchen, where she occasionally daydreamed about owning her own business. But at the time such fantasies seemed impossible.
Now 86, Baba, as she’s known to her grandkids, is vicariously living through her granddaughter, Helena Fabiankovic. Last spring, Helena and her boyfriend, Robert Gardiner, opened Baba’s Pierogies, a cozy restaurant in Gowanus that pays homage to Julia’s game-changing cooking—especially her pierogies, a food central to her family’s life.
Helena and Robert now churn out up to 1,000 of those pierogies per day, in 10 flavors. These range from Baba’s old-school favorites like sauerkraut, cinnamon-kissed blueberry, and potato and farmer’s cheese, to more unique creations—a granddaughter’s spin on decades-old recipes—such as bacon cheddar, hazelnut chocolate, and spinach and feta.
“We’ve tried to put a twist on tradition, to pay homage but also bring new experiences,” Helena says. “Baba’s all about it.”
That her granddaughter would someday be supporting herself via pierogies was likely unimaginable when Julia first took over cooking duties. It happened at her family’s farm, located in what is now eastern Slovakia, when she was just 10 years old. Her own grandmother taught her the family pierogi recipe. However, it was during the rough Soviet years, beginning in her early adulthood, that Julia really honed her skills in the kitchen—especially the art of making much with little.
“We wound up eating a lot of flour-and-potato-based food, because that’s all that we were allowed,” Julia says.
Blandness, however, was not on the menu. From the simplest of ingredients, Julia learned to coax a complex richness of flavors that belied their necessity and hardship. She simmered potatoes and onions for long hours on a wood-burning stove, bringing out the essence of those ingredients and then snuggling the mushy conglomeration, spoonful by spoonful, into pockets of dough. Sealing the pierogies with a pinch of a finger, she dunked them into boiling water, fishing them out at just the right moment. Take a bite, and the pillowy packages melt on the tongue like butter.
Julia churned these morsels out daily by the dozens, both sustaining and delighting her family. In the 1960s, however, things abruptly changed. Julia and her husband seized on an opportunity to move to Brooklyn, where an aunt had already laid down roots. “We wanted to come here for more freedom,” she says. “In Slovakia, life was hard. We were always scared.”
So they made the journey, three kids in tow, and landed in Sunset Park—then a predominantly Scandinavian neighborhood. There they stayed, all living under one roof and speaking Rusyn, a dialect of Slovak. And although Julia developed a love for pizza shortly after moving to Brooklyn, much to her family’s approval she held fast to her traditions in the kitchen.
“We were always eating together, especially as kids,” Helena says. “We also constantly saw food being made.”
Still, Helena says hers is “not a family of chefs” but of home cooks, and she never expected to get into the restaurant business. Robert was largely the catalyst. He and Helena met four years ago at Irish Haven, the local bar, and soon moved in together, just two blocks from Baba’s house. They spent every Friday there, eating pierogies and other Slovak delicacies. Work, however, began causing stress. Robert, a cook by trade, had an insatiable love of being in the kitchen but was unhappy at his job. Helena, meanwhile, found herself craving something new.
So the two started brainstorming a food-centric solution. Helena told Robert about a childhood fantasy, “long before this whole food truck thing started,” of opening a hot dog stand that sold pierogies. And having recently celebrated her 30th birthday, she also realized that Baba wasn’t getting any younger. Time was running out to learn the family recipes. Robert was the one to actually put these two sentiments together: Baba’s pierogies, he said, were the answer.
“We decided to open a business together instead of getting married,” Helena says, laughing. “It just happened, really. It wasn’t planned. I know that sounds crazy.”
So the couple became Baba’s pupils. She taught them how to knead a proper dough, to transform potatoes into addictive fillings and to stuff a pierogi so it was satisfyingly full but not overflowing. On evenings—oftentimes with bottles of wine, and urged on by friends—the two also began experimenting with their own spins, such as an ultra-creamy mac and cheese pierogi and a zippy jalapeño one.
Soon, the newly minted pierogi aces started a home delivery service. When that failed to coalesce—“A busy day was three calls”—they buckled down and began searching for a brick-and- mortar location. “Bob didn’t want to let it go,” Helena says. “This person never gives up.”
They scoured Brooklyn, finally landing on a space on Third Avenue where the rent was half as steep as a few blocks over. “This was before Whole Foods, Ample Hills and that shuffleboard place,” Helena says. Loans from their families supported the year-and-a-half-long process of navigating city permits and hand-renovating the space (with help from two designer friends, Jan Pecarka and Ludovit Gondkovsky).
Together they built benches and tables with wood sourced from an old bowling alley in South Chicago, created cushions from Slovak rugs and tiled the walls in white and green. They also installed a map of Slovakia, punctuated with black-and-white photos depicting scenes from Baba and her family’s life.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Helena says. “Which is great, because if we had known what we were getting into, we might not have done it.”
Despite one last hitch—Robert fractured his back on a skiing holiday in March—the doors finally opened in April. More than 100 friends and family members turned out for the big debut. “Grandpa had tears in his eyes,” Helena says. “And Grandma was late because she was getting her hair done. When she finally came in, everyone started clapping.”
That weekend, the line of customers stretched outside. And while the crowds eventually thinned and the pace slowed, business has remained steady and a loyal customer base has formed. One man even regularly journeys all the way from Staten Island, “because his kid will only eat these pierogies,” Robert says.
Numerous customers, Helena adds—Slovak, Polish or otherwise—tell her that the cooking reminds them of their own grandmother.
Helena and Robert now spend six days per week, up to 14 hours per day, at the shop. Still, they make almost weekly visits to Baba’s house, where they reacquaint themselves with the home cooking that started it all. On one such afternoon in mid-January, the whole family gathered in Baba’s basement kitchen, which was still decked in full Christmas splendor—blinged-out tree and all.
Clad in a daisy-patterned apron with her hair neatly tucked into a yellow kerchief, Baba stood over her massive wooden cutting board, expertly working a mass of dough—slap, smack, roll—that resembled a baby’s bottom. She was making another Baba classic, halushka, aka “lazy pierogies,” a traditional dish of hand-pulled noodles. As she worked, Champ, her little blind dog, wandered below, occasionally bumping into her leg. Helena’s grandfather looked on from the family’s ample leather couch, his eyes slowly closing. Her mother and sister popped in and out, and the smell of frying onions filled the cozy space.
“This is the whole feel we’re going for at the restaurant: of being at Grandma’s house, sitting and watching the pierogies being made,” Helena says. “I could be 10 right now.”