It’s 11:00 am. June weather in Budapest is brilliant: mid-seventies, a cool breeze along the Danube, the sun shining down through a blanket of fluff, as if waiting for a chance to pummel the city with two scoops of Hungarian raisins. We stroll up along the west bank of the river to Batthyány Tér, where old men idle on city benches and city buses idle on the edge of the square, shifting fixtures of Budapest’s undeniably quaint afternoon townscape.
We grab a quick cup of coffee at the metro station concourse and wait for the green and white HÉV train to arrive. We’re headed north, to the suburbs of Budapest, to Romai, a popular retreat from the cobbled, historicized and renovated corridors of central Buda and Pest. The riverbank of Romai, we’re told, is an idyllic spot for relaxation and simple food, neither of which are enemies to me. It’s a fifteen minute ride towards Szentendre, a more tourism oriented river town to the north of the city, to our light rail stop near the city border.
We step off the train and walk toward the coast. There’s no obvious path for the foreigner to follow, despite claims by our new friends that we should know exactly where to go. We’re in the thick of the Budapest suburbs, an alluring improvement over the flat-earth Los Angeles suburbs that nurtured me through childhood. Public space here is lush and blooming. Private homes are small, modern and fully integrated into the greenery around them. Small grocery stores and cafes dot the small roads and trails that connect everything in an atmosphere of pure contentment.
We work our way west until we see the water. The view is indeed idyllic, in a humble, understated way. Romai Part definitely wouldn’t cut it as a full fledged tourist attraction, but as a destination for locals looking to break off from city life and have a beer on the grass, it’s everything I could want. Tracks of beaten and eroded earth mark the wakes of boats wheeled down from their owners’ riverside homes. Bars, cafes and fry shops perch themselves on the upper bank, many offering patios for their customers to eat and drink along the water. Plastic chairs and inoperable foosball tables are the highlights of the waterfront, eclipsed only by the pervasive aroma of freshly fried fish.
After a couple of beers, we place our order for hekk: Hungarian whiting filet, served deep fried on the bone with chips and a fistful of pickles. The floured and deep fried fish is stunning. Its thin outer layer of breading and skin is the perfect consistency. The meat is tender, flaky and plentiful without a hint of dryness.
The only problem with our hekk is that it seems to know only one note of flavor: salt, and plenty of it. What would have been a perfect lunch is marred by over salting, which is a shame considering how delicious the fish would be on its own, with just a dash of salt, a sprinkle of pepper and a splash of pickled Hungarian paprika. Amit, unable to finish his food, considers his dish to be a “salt accident.” I consider mine a cultural inflection of taste, not too different from seeing soul food regulars tumble godly amounts of salt onto their greens during the weekday lunch break. I clean my plate and down my wine, eager to try the next strip of hekk for comparison but too full to properly function. Heads abuzz with sodium overdose, we set out for the scenic stroll back towards the train station.