Heaven is a plate of pierogies

There's a lineup out the door, and outstanding food inside. But this isn't just another chichi restaurant; it's a church. And rather than fancy fare, it's got something that's equally sought after: down-to-earth cooking.

On the first Friday of every month (the next is October 5), Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral puts on a pierogi dinner, complete with kielbasa, sauerkraut, cabbage rolls, and all the fixings. But it's not white-haired grannies, the devout, or necessarily even Ukrainians who come out. Rather, it's a colourful cross section of the Main Street crowd that follows the religion of good eating.

Neighbours, hipsters, and toddlers clamour for "dynamite" Ukrainian dumplings
When we arrive at the East 10th Avenue church's auditorium, the lineup is at least 15 people deep. A well-dressed businessman blathers into his cellphone; a group of women dissect office politics; and a Courtney Love throwback cozies up to her boyfriend. We quickly learn this line ends at the takeout window–which sells frozen homemade pierogies for $3.75 a dozen–so we scuttle to the front of the line and are led into the bustling hall.

This is not a dinner-for-two kind of place: big, communal tables encourage conversation with friends you haven't met yet. We're seated next to Scott and Lisa Stanley, who are elbow-deep in sour cream, enjoying bites of pierogi between assisting their little ones. The family doesn't have Ukrainian roots, but they live nearby and have been regulars for two years. "It's a nice place to bring kids, it's just so casual," Lisa says. "We see a lot of our neighbours here."

The Stanley family is splitting two Super Dinner ($13) plates, each consisting of 10 pierogies, four small cabbage rolls, a stub of kielbasa, a scoop of sauerkraut, and salad. "We had Cheemo pierogies earlier this week," Scott says. "As soon as we sat down and had these [the ones at the church], we realized how much better they were."

They ought to be–each pierogi is handmade. A week earlier, I dropped in on a prep session. Two mornings a month, about 20 parish volunteers form a laid-back assembly line, producing the 7,000 pierogies needed for each dinner, when 400 people cycle through the auditorium in three hours. "It's our major source of revenue," explained parish president Ted Cholod.

Back in the kitchen, Vasily Stepanchnko, recently immigrated from Kiev, mixed a vat of mashed potato with margarine, Cheddar, parsley, and salt. He doesn't speak English, so Cholod translated: the key is mixing the filling when it's warm, so that the cheese melts. A machine is used to flatten balls of dough into disks, and then each disk is cut into five-centimetre squares with a tool that looks like a six-pronged pizza cutter.

These squares were passed on to a group of volunteers who formed the pierogies as they chatted. They scooped a melon ball's worth of filling onto a square, folded the corners together, and sealed the edges with quick, firm pinches. No orange plastic pierogi-making press here. "That's Hunky Bill–style," somebody called out.

Anyone who wants to try their hand at it is welcome to come out and volunteer, no Ukrainian connection required, Cholod said. The group makes sauerkraut seasonally (this month), and the borscht and cabbage rolls are made fresh the morning of the dinner.

Back at the dinner, volunteers control the chaos–seating patrons, dishing out plates of food from warming trays, and bussing tables. Leaving the Stanleys to their meal, we queue to pay for and then collect our plates. (Dinners range from $8 to $13.) By now the place is overflowing: the line to pay snakes through the tables, and moving around is a tight squeeze.

Paul Proznick stands in line behind us with buddies Steffen Tweedle and Toby Mallinder. Proznick is Ukrainian and has been here before, but this is the others' first time. Their young families wait back at their table. "When I say pierogies to my wife, her eyes light up," Tweedle says.

Proznick is the connoisseur, however, having made pierogies at home. He deems the church's to be "dynamite". "It's a bit about texture," he says. "If you don't roll it out right, they're not quite the same."

Sure enough, when we finally dig in, the pierogies have a nice firm texture, and the fact that they're smothered in butter and onions doesn't hurt. Neither does the feel of the hall, with neighbours greeting each other, strangers meeting, and families talking. Just the right atmosphere in which to enjoy down-to-earth cooking.