You just gotta go. This little place wedged into a Garland strip alongside dollar outlets and shabby marts is worth the drive from wherever, if only for the novelty.
It's not often you find rural Pennsylvania finery replicated so perfectly, right down to the mismatched chairs, whitewashed latticework and cutesy vine motif. Owner Mark Petryk approaches with banter—offering, at the end of a meal "to give the lady a kiss" before presenting a Hershey's candy. I'm certain he would pull the old "pride and joy" bit, if he had the chance. Don't know it? A kindly old man whips out a photograph and says, "Let me show you my pride and joy," then hands over a snapshot of two well-known detergents.
Folksy humor is rarely subtle, but Petryk's quickly disarms and charms first-time guests. If you're not from the neighborhood, if you drove over from the gleaming ranks of Uptown, say, this tiny pocket of Appalachia would seem almost too neighborhood-friendly. But when the owner assures you that Marlo's House is the "best Mennonite restaurant on this side of Belt Line," you can't help but relax and settle in, even while groaning.
Yes, the little kitchen serves Mennonite favorites, which is to say Pennsylvania Dutch dishes adapted from traditional old-world recipes. Klopps steak, for example, is merely a patty of lean ground beef smothered in gravy. Stack two of these in a bun, slather on some cheese and it becomes Marlo's "double Klopps met chies"—easy enough to translate. Petryk's wife, Lori, was raised in a Canadian Mennonite family. As he explained over the phone, "When she started cooking for me, I said, 'I can't believe I'm the only person in the city who eats like this.'" Naturally, they decided to open a restaurant.
That was five years ago, and the menu has hardly changed since. A dozen soups fill one page of the brief listing. Most are of the simple chicken noodle variety, although the list includes three types of borscht and a cold berry soup perfect for summer. Staple entrees range from the familiar (pierogies) and holubschi (otherwise known as cabbage rolls) to something called wareniki.
This last is a sweet assembly of dumplings stuffed with cottage cheese. Not your Kraft variety, mind you, but a fresh and fatty homemade style that bleeds into the dessert-like cream sauce spooned over the top. An intense rhubarb dressing bursts from the background, tart with a bitter nudge that pulls on similar tastes in a slab of pan-fried ham served alongside. The meat's flavor ranges from slightly tangy to bittersweet where scorched. It's simple, but you can't stop eating.
The owner recommends ham instead of their own smoked sausage with the wareniki, by the way, even though the sausage offers an interesting, acrid high note underscored when huskier flavors emerge underneath. In fact, he is happy to warn you away from some of their offerings. "That's not my favorite," he says, pointing us away from one soup toward another.
His wife does the cooking, so believe him when he sticks his neck out.
Soups sometimes topple too far toward the "Grandma's home cooking" side of things, assuming Grandma is a few years past her kitchen prime. Cream corn buries its nice sweet starchiness in a thin, disappointing mouth feel. The hamburger soup comes in a watery broth with gray meat crumbled into tiny bits.
When the one-woman kitchen strays from the flock into more worldly dishes, results can be disappointing. Pizza pierogies (think pizza puffs from the frozen food aisle) undermine good dough, mottled by squiggles of golden brown after a toss in the pan, with a mundane, Albertson's-worthy filling. Their attempt at Jamaica-Mississippi fusion—catfish and jerk shrimp—is just what you would expect if, say, a group of white guys from the outskirts of Jackson invited everyone over for an old-fashioned Caribbean backyard boil, though the catfish was plump and firm.
Not convinced yet to make the trip? Bear with me. I'm just getting to the poutine.
Lori Petryk's upbringing was not only Mennonite, but Canadian. You know, that place where universal health care affords folks an excuse to scarf down artery-clogging, heart-stopping appetizers like this favorite: french fries in cheese curds and gravy. It tastes much, much better than that sounds. Really, there's nothing quite so strange and satisfying. Savory, salty chicken gravy oozes from each strand of golden potato. (Canadians are divided into rival camps, one certain that real poutine starts with beef broth, the other equally adamant about chicken.) Melted cheese blends into the warm, seasoned flavor, soaking up the gravy while lending a soothing, creamy, almost luxurious texture. The entire mass rivals foie gras in complexity: earthy and herbal, salty and tart, rich but not heavy.
And so damn addictive.
If only the Mennonites would install a flat-screen TV, you could waste entire evenings forking through poutine and watching the game.
Ah, but Marlo's House is a part-time gig for its owners. They open only Thursday through Saturday, shutting down in the wee hours of early evening so guests can get a good rest before milking the herd.
Sorry. Mennonite joke. Actually, they clipped the hours because patrons are rather hard to come by in this particular culinary niche. Although sizable Mennonite communities exist in Paris and near Lubbock, the restaurant is "still a nonprofit organization," Mark Petryk says.
Another dose of sorry humor there. So don't feel bad about poking fun at caricatures. The owner himself, as we are getting set to leave this Saturday evening, brings out a gift for our table: a Mennonite flashlight. It is a match glued to a tongue depressor. Handwritten on the strip of wood is a warning to use the gadget only in a well-lit area.
"It also doubles as a gas-leak detector," Petryk explains.
You just gotta go to this place, at least once—for the poutine, their incredible pecan pie and especially for the novelty of it all.Marlos House 1456 Belt Line Road, No. 120, Garland, 972-530-0912. Open 4-8 p.m. Thursday, 4-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$