"We're old-school. We don't advertise."
Zbigniew "Ziggy" Gorzkowski says this while standing behind a counter full of house-baked desserts at Halgo European Deli & Groceries. He offers the statement as an explanation for why he and his wife, co-owner Halina, don't bother with the hassle of marketing. Yet it also accurately sums up the ethos of this Durham establishment. At Halgo, Halina and Ziggy Gorzkowski quietly deliver traditional Polish food to those who know how to find them.
Finding Halgo usually happens in one of three ways. According to the Gorzkowskis, a quarter of the shop's regular customers are, like them, immigrants from Poland or other Central or Eastern European states, who arrive through word-of-mouth referrals. The next seventy percent are either United States natives who grew up in Northeastern or Midwestern cities with large Polish communities, or military vets formerly stationed in Poland who found the shop by searching for paczki online.
The last five percent represents people like me, who spotted the word pierogi on the side of a small green building while leaving the south branch of the Durham County Library and stumbled into a hidden gem. The shop is located in what looks like a repurposed single-family home. Shrouded by trees, its tiny red-and-white sign is easy for drivers to miss as they head west on Highway 54.
For those sharp-eyed enough to notice it and then turn into Halgo's six-car parking lot, a world of choices awaits inside.
Halgo's shelves are laden with Polish and Ukrainian groceries of all kinds; cookies, dried mushrooms, soup mixes, and imported soft drinks line the walls. During one visit, I asked about the five different jars of mustard for sale.
"If you want spicy, this is what you need," Halina says, handing me a red-capped jar of Pulaski stone-ground mustard, adorned with the visage of Casimir Pulaski, a Polish national and a hero of the Revolutionary War. She's right: the mustard has exactly enough horseradish kick and texture.
The real stars at Halgo reside in the shop's two freezer chests and deli case. One freezer holds loaves of rye and a wide range of desserts. A highlight: makowiec, a long pastry roll filled with a thick poppy seed paste, which, when sliced, reveals black-and-white spirals and the smell of honey and orange zest. Those same notes accent the nutty, earthy richness of the poppy seeds with each bite.
The second freezer is devoted to pierogi and borscht. The Gorzkowskis stock more than a dozen varieties of pierogi, from savory standards like beef, cheese, spinach, and sauerkraut-mushroom to blueberry and plum. Taking a pack home to cook is one option, but smart shoppers call ahead and ask Halina to prepare them herself. This way, you arrive at the store and are greeted by a takeout box filled with perfectly tender dumplings tossed with butter and sauteed onions. You can even call ahead for a pickup kielbasa-and-sauerkraut on a roll.
When it opened in 2007, Halgo—Ziggy's portmanteau of Halina's name—was a second career. After emigrating from Poland to New Jersey in the early 1980s, Ziggy drove a limousine. But the 9/11 attacks hurt his business, which was already suffering due to changing tastes, like a new preference for luxury SUVs over town cars. Ziggy retired, and when Halina's employer moved overseas, the couple sought lower property taxes and the opportunity to start their business in North Carolina.
In New Jersey, the Gorzkowskis had picked up some key skills and made crucial connections. Halina routinely moonlighted in restaurants, and her husband still drives his refrigerated truck to Jersey once or twice a month to pick up fresh stock from five favored warehouses. He returns with sausages, pierogi, and an assortment of packaged goods for the store.
Ziggy's trips make Halgo's wide selection of meats and cheeses possible. Polish ham, smoked bacon, and cheese like radamer, podlaski, and smoked zamoyski are great when piled high on one of Halina's deli sandwiches.
What makes Halgo's selection distinct is the range of Polish sausages in the case. Kielbasa are most familiar, but don't overlook kabanos—long, thin smoked sausage in a crisp, smoky casing. The pork and veal version is infinitely snackable, especially with a spread of Pulaski mustard. Equally wonderful are the myliwska, or "hunter's sausage," which trades smokiness for lighter notes of black pepper and juniper, and the dark, garlicky weselna, called "wedding sausage" for its traditional consumption at celebrations.
Halina complements Halgo's dry goods and sausages with her own products, like a slaw-like vegetable salad, apple cake, and walnut cookies. The wild-looking house-made chrusciki, twisted ribbons of flash-fried dough dusted with powdered sugar, are crunchy and sweet.
Halgo has no seats, inside or out, and the Gorzkowskis have no plans to add any. They're old school. And it's working.
The Gorzkowskis recently took their first vacation in nine years. Halina visited family in Poland and Ziggy simply relaxed. They didn't update the single-page Halgo website to say they would be gone. Anyone who needed to know would have already seen the small notice posted behind the cash register.
On their first day back, a steady stream of regulars passed through. After paying, one man jokingly admonished the couple in a thick accent, saying it had been awful living without real Polish food available. Having eaten at Halgo, I agree.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Trip North on South Alston"