Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Baba touch

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A few weeks ago, Kristi Konopada, the daughter of Luda's Deli owner, Tracy Konopada, treated herself to dinner at a much-lauded local French restaurant. "I ordered salmon and salmon is exactly what I got -- with a little bit of sauce and leek on top," Kristi says, patting her stomach.

"I thought, 'Hmm, maybe they're trying to keep me skinny.'"

No chance of that occurring at her mother's place, where dessert isn't even an option. "We don't offer dessert, because who has room for it?" Tracy says. "I promise that nobody who eats here leaves here hungry."

"Here" is a homey, 36-seat diner at the corner of Salter Street and Aberdeen Avenue that Winnipeggers have been beeting a path to for 20-plus years.

"A lot of people tell me my borscht is just like their Baba used to make, and honestly, what better compliment can you get?" asks Tracy Konopada, who answers a reporter's "If you're Tracy, then who's Luda?" question by explaining that the locale's name hails from the Ukrainian nash lyudy, meaning "our people."

Should be "her people." Because during the course of an hour -- or about the time it takes a Free Press scribe to polish off Luda's breakfast special (scrambled eggs, perogies, hash browns, pumpernickel toast and kubasa) -- Tracy greets every customer through her door by name. And then gets going on their meals without bothering to ask what they're in the mood for that day.

"That's how it goes around here," says Kristi, who serves as her mother's right hand. "We don't need a calendar -- we can pretty well tell what day it is by who's coming in."

Take Wednesday, for example. That's the day when Tracy's 74-year-old mother, Rosalyn, habitually pops by for mushroom soup and a denver sandwich. "She sits in the same lunch-counter seat, every week," Tracy says. "And if somebody is sitting in 'her' spot, she'll stand beside them with her walker and stare them down."

Cooking for mom is nothing new. Tracy, 50, has been doing it since she was eight years old, growing up on nearby Burrows Avenue.

"My mom used to work at Coca-Cola, but by the time she got home and got supper going, it was close to 7:30. So I taught myself how to cook so that I could go outside and play."

Shortly after graduating from St. John's High School (yes, she aced home economics), Tracy went to work for her father, Eddie, at his own North End institution, Eddie's Place on Selkirk Avenue.

"I was still at my dad's when my husband bought the building here in 1987," Tracy says of the 36-seat diner. "The original plan was for him and his sister to run Luda's, but after about a month, she came to see me at my dad's, handed me the keys and said, 'Here, you go do it.'"

Within a few weeks, Tracy made the place her own, adding burgers, Reubens and clubhouse sandwiches to a menu already laden with Ukrainian favourites. Homemade soups change daily; Kristi recalls a near-customer revolt after one of her most popular -- mac and cheese soup -- was briefly rechristened. "Mom decided that was a silly name for a soup so she changed it to hamburger vegetable instead ... except nobody wanted it -- nobody ordered it. Everybody kept asking what happened to the mac and cheese."

Working side by side with her daughter six days a week (Luda's is closed on Sundays) is a "blessing," Tracy says. And she says the strong bond she also shares with her clientele is what saw her through a particularly tragic part of her life.

"My husband died April 18, 1992, and my dad died less than two weeks later, on April 27," Tracy says. "I didn't want to leave the house at the time -- I just wanted to be secluded -- but this was my business and people expected me to be open.

"Anyways, I had so many wonderful friends come through the doors in the days and weeks after that, telling me how much my dad meant to them -- and how much this place means to them, too."

During the summer, Luda's Deli, 410 Aberdeen Ave., is open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"We reopen on Saturdays after Labour Day long weekend," Tracy says. "Everyone's already telling me just how many Saturdays off I have left; I'm like, "Really, that few? Don't remind me."

Hamburger Helper:

There's still time to vote in our inaugural Fat Boy Idol contest. We're looking for the best Fat Boy-style burger in town -- the phattest Fat Boy, if you will. Send in your pick(s) to david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca and we'll publish the results later this month. To spice things up, we'll award one person who gets in touch with us a free Fat Boy and fries, hand-delivered. (Just don't blame us if there's a bite or three missing when we drop it off.)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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