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Maria's 'Ko Po BBQ' Series Offers Spin on Chicago Tavern Tradition

By Casey Cora | May 29, 2014 4:43am
 The Bridgeport bar serves up a free buffet for patrons every Monday throughout the summer.
Ko Po BBQ at Maria's
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BRIDGEPORT — Neighbors are invited to beat the Monday blues with a big helping of Ko Po BBQ, the outdoor Korean-Polish food mashup at Maria's Community Bar.

The weekly summertime grilling series has returned for the season with an all-star roster of Korean-American chefs to serve as grillmasters.

"I've cooked about 5,000 of these," Maria's co-owner Mike Marszewski said while turning Polish sausages on a grill perched near the bar's patio, where brother Ed Marszewski was putting the finishing touches on a buffet filled with potato salad and homemade kimchi, a spicy fermented vegetable mix.

The series takes place each Monday throughout the summer. It's free, with the expectation that patrons buy a drink. 

The Marszewski brothers sometimes handle the cooking — they've even done ribs and lobster tails — but again this season they've also invited notable Korean-American chefs Bill Kim, Beverly Kim and Won Kim to participate.

The unlikely mix of Korean and Polish foods started as a lark a few years ago during an event at Version Fest, the annual community celebration.

"We thought it was hilarious, so we said let's just do this," said Ed Marszewski.

The weekly feast is accompanied by beer specials, including $4 bottles of Tiger Beer, a lager brewed in Singapore. as well as $5 draft specials. But guests can also expect surprises in the form of rare beers from various breweries.

Earlier this month, it was the unannounced tapping of KBS, a cave-aged chocolate coffee Imperial stout from Michigan's Founders Brewery.

The practice of Chicago tavern's serving food to patrons reportedly dates back to the 19th century, when barkeeps would lure in the workday crowd with free meals.

Among the first to test the concept was tavern owner Joseph Chesterfield Mackin, who's novel backroom library filled with sports magazines and newspapers failed to keep patrons in the bar upfront.

"Gamblers and horse-betters would not give him their undivided business," wrote UIC urban historian Perry Duis in his book, The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920.

"Finally, he began serving a hot oyster free with every drink. Although the claim is impossible to verify and his competitors quickly copied the scheme, Joe Mackin had immortalized himself in saloon history. He had invented the free lunch."

Outside on the patio on a warm Monday night in Bridgeport, the picnic tables filled up with regulars and off-the-clock Maria's workers filling up on plates of kimchi-topped Polish sausage, grilled hunks of pineapple and spicy hot wings.

At one point, a neighborhood old-timer, with a bright orange city parking ticket tucked in his shirt pocket, strolled over and piled up a big plate, then walked straight home.

It's the type of laid-back summertime vibe that brought friends Nick Fraccaro, 29, of Logan Square, and Paul Durica, 36, of Pilsen, to the bar.

"It's cool to be part of an old Chicago tradition with people showing up week after week," Durica said.

The Ko Po BBQ begins 5:30 p.m. each Monday throughout the summer at Maria's Community Bar, 960 W. 31st. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early.

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