Inside the Los Angeles area’s only authentic Polish sausage factory
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
J & T European Gourmet Food
1128 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica
There’s an old saying that those who like laws and sausage shouldn’t watch either being made.
Though the lawmaking process may be enough to turn anybody’s stomach, the same is not necessarily true of sausage, as Mike Waszkowski and Manny Aranda of J & T European Gourmet Food are happy to demonstrate.
The pair grew up near Eastern European neighborhoods in Chicago, and they now make hundreds of pounds of sausage every week at a business that once boasted a red neon sign reading “Polish Sausage Factory.”
Past a cold case holding pierogi and sauerkraut, shelves of groceries and a deli case full of exotic meats is a sparkling clean kitchen and adjacent smoker where racks of sausages turn a beautiful mahogany color. After blissfully inhaling the aroma of wood smoke, I spoke with Waszkowski and Aranda on the techniques for making perfect sausage.
What’s the difference between supermarket kielbasa and the stuff you make?
Waszkowski: Kielbasa is just the Polish word for sausage — we make eight varieties, and ours is fresh-smoked over a real fire by real people. Except for our veal wieners, all of ours are made with fresh pork, and that’s what’s traditional in Poland. All smoked sausage is required to have nitrates by the U.S. FDA, but we use no other preservatives, fillers or additives.
[NOTE: For comparison, Hillshire Farms kielbasa contains water, turkey, corn syrup, sugar, soy, sodium phosphate, monosodium glutamate and sodium erythorbate — none of which my Polish grandmother would have allowed near her sausage.]
What are the differences in the kinds you make?
Aranda: There are different spicings based on where in Poland they originated. They all include various amounts of garlic, pepper and marjoram, but some include things like nutmeg, paprika, juniper, mustard seeds and caraway.
Waszkowski: Polish people want what they grew up with, and so we make our sausages according to their traditions. There are sausages for specific occasions — like our biala, which is for holidays. That’s an unsmoked sausage, one we sell fresh and raw. It has highlights of marjoram, garlic and black pepper.
Are your customers mainly immigrants?
Waszkowski:: Our clientele is about three-quarters Polish, German and Russian, with the other quarter being local people who are adventurous. We’re really big on educating locals who are just curious about what’s happening here. We know that a case full of stuff they’ve never seen before can be intimidating. We give them samples, explaining our whole process so they know the story behind the things they’re seeing. We could put up signs explaining what each one is, but we like to interact with the customers.
Aranda: Whenever we have sausage come out of the smokehouse we put it out on the counter, and people see it and smell it. They get really excited because they’ve never had sausage fresh from a smoker, and it’s so fragrant and tasty.
Are you reaching out to different customers?
Waszkowski: We have just started reaching out to the Santa Monica crowd. For years our only advertising has been a sandwich board out front, but we want to encourage chefs to experiment with our products.
Aranda: We’re trying a few things that are more modern. The sausage that is smoking right now is a Hungarian-style sausage with habaneros. We have been studying sausage traditions since we started working here, and now we’re experimenting.
This place is famous for its sausage, but you make other smoked meats …
Waszkowski: We’re known for our smoked bacon, turkeys and hams. The bacon here looks different and is made differently — instead of long slices we cut the pork belly in half, and it’s hot-smoked so that it’s ready to eat without frying. American bacon is raw; this is fully cooked. The fat is creamy and the lean meat has a soft texture.
Aranda: On Saturday mornings we make pork meatloaf. Some people show up at 10 a.m. so they can be here when it’s hot and ready to go. We use pork, onions, garlic, a Polish seasoning called Vegeta; and it’s light, juicy and delicious. You wouldn’t want to put ketchup on it.
Is this the Westside’s only Polish sausage factory?
Waszkowski: Actually, it’s the only one in Los Angeles! The closest other one that smokes its own meat is in San Diego. We deliver to Orange County and to all the Russian delis in West Hollywood and the Valley. We’ve had people say that we should try their favorite sausage from some other place, and then had to tell them that the deli or restaurant they mentioned buys it from us.