While Budapest has plenty to offer in the way of tourism and the arts, my only real concern during my week in the city was to eat as much comfort food as possible. I was told upon arrival by several locals that a home cooked meal would be difficult to obtain. This notion may have been misplaced, given that, over the next seven days, I would be invited into strangers’ homes for freshly picked cherries, a classical piano concert, pork sausage from the corner butcher and a poorly made 4:00 a.m. spliff. Nevertheless, for home style food I was directed to a number of smaller restaurants and diners, local favorites that fall outside the purview of restaurant row in the sixth district. None of them failed to please.
First up was Kölöves (stone soup), a classy, artsy restaurant that delivered a megaton of satisfaction in its roasted goose leg. The skin was crisped to the very edge of a char. Paper thin and bursting with flavor, it floated above a nearly melted layer of fat separating it from the dark meat and bone underneath. Biting into the leg released all of its juices into a perfect bite: crisp, oily, tender and meaty… not to mention ridiculously simple. If ever an argument for carnivorous design were to be made, this would be Exhibit A. It would, however, have been incomplete without the equally minimal boiled potatoes and earthy, sweet and sour pickled red cabbage that accompanied the meat in perfect proportion.
Roma, the beautiful patio restaurant that would serve us fried pork brain, offered equally delicious food on the west side of Danube. Its goose leg was a lighter construction, better seasoned and more texturally integrated than its counterpart at Kölöves but lacking the rush of fat and grease that came with its lopsided layers. The accompanying cabbage and potatoes matched in tone, trading in the earthy and heavy for bright, tart flavors.
Roma’s grilled pork with egg noodles came closer to the ideal of comfort food. Tender, slightly seared slices of pork and mushroom, bathed in a paprika anointed meat gravy and topped with sour cream, sat alongside a pile of springy, chewy egg noodles, waiting to be inhaled more than savored. I was all too happy to oblige.
Highest expectations were set for Kádár Étkezde, a legendary lunch diner (lunch, not dinner, is the primary meal in Magyar cuisine) that was recommended by literally every Hungarian local willing to talk to me about serious food. Originally opened by the Kádár family as one of few privately owned dining establishments in Budapest during its Soviet occupation, Kádár today exists in a bit of a time warp.
Each table, dressed in white and red checkers, is furnished with a bottle of seltzer water and a basket of bread, which you take at your leisure and pay for – working within the confines of the honor system – after your meal. Autographed photos and small paintings blanket the walls, attesting to the eatery’s status as the last game in town when it comes to authentically classic Jewish-Hungarian cooking. If that weren’t enough to convince you of Kádár’s home kitchen cred, every item on the first half of the regular menu begins with the words, “boiled beef.”
I had come to Kádár lusting after its mythic solet, a sabbath specialty derived from a traditional Jewish stew (cholent) and served in decidedly unorthodox style by Hungarian restaurants in Budapest. For reasons still to be resolved, I did not have my solet – it joined halászlé and several other Magyar favorites that I somehow managed to fail at eating during my lengthy stay in Budapest.
I did, however, have a meal that made me wish I’d been eating lunch at Kádár on every day of the week. Lecsós Borda, best explained as pork chops grilled with peppers, tomatoes, onions in a sauce that was completely permeated by the smoky musk of bacon, made good on its status as a blue plate special. Sertéspörkölt-Galuska (pork goulash) was unbeatable in its simplicity: It was a stew crafted from no more than five ingredients but cooked so expertly that its flavors (pork, tomato, paprika and onion) were bolder and livelier than anything else on the table. Töltött Paprika (stuffed peppers) were a delight, much like Polish golabki but heartier in flavor and form. Dessert was császármorzsa, a crumbly and chewy bread pudding served with currants, powdered sugar and blissful pond of apricot preserve.
Unexplored territory on the menu included pork stomach, goose wings, a number of cabbage dishes, all that boiled beef and of course the much vaunted solet that had lured me here in the first place. When I make it back to Budapest, Kádár Étkezde will be my first stop and perhaps my only stop until I’ve plumbed the depths of its kitchen. It may not be someone’s personal dining room, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s home enough to miss.
Kazinczy u. 35
VII District, Budapest, HUNGARY
Csalogány u. at Málina u.
II District, Budapest, HUNGARY
Klauzál Tér 9
VII District, Budapest, HUNGARY