An unlikely week of food tourism in Budapest, sponsored by facial hair.
On February 1, 2009, my roommate and I entered a contest. On April 16, 2009, we were declared winners. He received two round trip tickets to Budapest. I received a bag of women’s beauty products. The products were testers.
Food for Thought – Jun 17, 2009
Four months later, haggard, hungry, and hopelessly jet lagged, we took a seat in a cafe bar called Kiadó Kocsma and downed the week’s inaugural shots of Unicum, Hungary’s national liquor. Technically classified as bitters, Unicum is an infusion of herbs and spice into a reservoir of licorice. Imagine it as Hungary’s hairy, back-handed slap to Germany’s Jägermeister – Unicum is more powerful and more nuanced, with a range of flavors that reaches well beyond the banks of the Danube.
That evening, after an hour of searching for a restaurant open on Sundays, we settled into a generic magyar étterem (Hungarian restaurant) situated directly across from an international hotel. My expectations for the meal were low, but they changed upon discovery of fried pork neck on the dinner menu.
The meatier part of the neck had been sliced, marinated in what seemed like a century of garlic, and fried to a juicy, tender brown. Crowning the plate was a chunk of pork neck bone, a ring of connective tissue and fat that broke my prior understanding of the pig. Texturally, each piece resembled a cube of watermelon flesh that had been drained of its sugars and injected instead with the juices of a ham hock. Taken with a lager and a salad of barely pickled cucumber, the almost crystalline chunks of fat were the kind of perfect meal that was perfect precisely because we had no idea what we were doing.
A few days later, during lunch at a local favorite named Roma Étterem, we decided to continue our sojourn through the parts of the pig, skipping past options of stomach and lung for a straight shot at brain. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the smartest decision. Unfortunately, it was a terrible decision. Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish the plate.
It seemed harmless enough on sight: finely breaded, deep fried nuggets laid atop a bed of boiled potatoes in an appealing hue of golden brown. We couldn’t tell by looking at the dish that this had to be one of the worst ways to cook brain – though, to be honest, neither of us has the experience to know what the best way of cooking brain might be. There was nothing particularly unpleasant about its flavor (mild and slightly fishy). The texture of each bite, however, was a challenging blend of second thoughts. I doubt that brain has a crisping point, but Roma’s flash fry left the cerebral innards of each deep fried chunk in an extensive state of goop.
Imaginings of gummy, springy zombie food granting us the strength of the living were laid to waste. It was as if someone had boiled pasta to mush, mixed it with pulverized fat and folded the result into a healthy dollop of cream of mushroom soup and fish oil. Strings and clumps of what could have been muscle popped up from time to time, only to disintegrate into a fine paste. After eating just over half of one lobe, I wondered whether calling it quits would underscore the name of this blog or shame it for seven generations. More pressing was the revelation that, in the orders of the supernatural pig, I would rather be a vampire than a zombie. Well played, Budapest.
Hungering for Home in Budapest – Jun 21, 2009
While Budapest has plenty to offer in the way of tourism and the arts, my only real concern during our 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, we would be invited into strangers’ homes for freshly picked cherries, a classical piano concert, pork sausage from the corner butcher and a 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.
Kölöves (translation: “stone soup”), a classy restaurant with one hell of a 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.
Roma, the beautiful patio restaurant that had served us fried pork brain, offered equally delicious food on the west side of Danube. Their 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.
A plate of 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.
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 had lingered after the Cold War in a bit of a time warp.
Each table, dressed in white and red checkers, was furnished with a bottle of seltzer water and a basket of bread, which customers would take at their leisure and pay for – working within the confines of the honor system – after their meal. Autographed photos and small paintings blanketed the walls, attesting to the eatery’s status as the last game in town when it came to classic Jewish-Hungarian cooking. If that weren’t enough to convince us of Kádár’s home kitchen cred, every item on the first half of the regular menu began with the words “boiled beef.”
I had come to Kádár in search of 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 failed to eat during our lengthy stay in Budapest.
I did, however, have a meal that made me wish we’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 solet that had lured me here in the first place. If I ever 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 anyone’s personal dining room, but it’s home enough to miss.
Tale From a Riverbank – Jun 22, 2009
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. At 11:00 am, we strolled up along the west bank of the river to Batthyány Tér, where old men idled on city benches and city buses idled on the edge of the square, shifting fixtures of Budapest’s quaint afternoon townscape.
We grabbed a quick cup of coffee at the metro station concourse and waited for the green and white HÉV train to arrive. We were 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 were told, is an idyllic spot for relaxation and simple food. It was 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 worked our way west until we saw the water. The view was 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 one could want. Tracks of beaten and eroded earth marked the wakes of boats wheeled down from their owners’ riverside homes. Bars, cafes and fry shops perched themselves on the upper bank, many offering patios for their customers to eat and drink along the water. Plastic chairs and inoperable foosball tables were the highlights of the waterfront, eclipsed only by the pervasive aroma of freshly fried fish.
After a couple of beers, we placed our order for hekk: Hungarian whiting filet, served deep fried on the bone with chips and a fistful of pickles. Its thin outer layer of breading and skin was the perfect consistency. The meat was tender, flaky and plentiful without a hint of dryness.
The only problem with our hekk was that it seemed to know only one flavor: salt, and plenty of it. What would have been a happy lunch was marred by over salting, which is a shame considering how delicious the fish would have been on its own, with just a dash of salt and a splash of pickled Hungarian paprika. Amit, unable to finish his food, considered his dish to be a “salt accident.” I considered mine a cultural inflection of taste, not too different from seeing Los Angeles’ soul food regulars tumble godly amounts of salt onto their greens during the weekday lunch break. I cleaned my plate and downed my wine. Heads abuzz with sodium overdose, we set out for the scenic stroll back towards the train station.
Lángos! – Jun 23, 2009
By the time we stopped to sit down, the hazy weekday afternoon had already begun to falter. The sun was still beaming down on Budapest, but midday was well done. We’d been walking through and around Városliget, Budapest’s central city park, for almost two hours. The directions we’d been given to the biergarten of our dreams were utterly, thirstily wrong. Amit sipped from a Coke bottle and reminded me that we were due for dinner in three hours. I was steeling myself to admit chowhound defeat and eat the very next thing I saw wrapped in a bun when I looked up and noticed the lángos sign down the road.
There are few things in this city better than Lángos. This, of course, comes from a man whose love for lamb on a stick exceeds his love for his own mother. Still, it’s a claim I would challenge any hungry visitor to unseat. Lángos is to Budapest as pizza is to New York, as hot dogs are to Chicago and as a great taco al pastor is to Los Angeles. It’s what sandwiches are to white people (alternatively, it’s what pho is to Asians). It’s the common currency of taste, a piece of the city that every resident knows and recommends, the emotionally ingrained bite that evokes solemn smiles and hushed directions to the best lángos stand in the city from the most unassuming of citizen-eaters.
Physically speaking, lángos (“lahn-gohsh”) is a giant, savory yeast doughnut, deep fried, sprinkled with garlic powder, pasted with sour cream and topped with whatever your drunk-out-of-your-3:00-a.m. mind can muster.
It was fortunate for us that Lángos is better experienced sober and starving, because the stand on the southwestern edge of the city park had a way with dough. The bread was freshly fried and hot to the touch. Its edges upheld a magnificent, airy crunch. Its innards were fluffy and porous, landing somewhere between a funnel cake and a raised doughnut. Amit’s garlic, sour cream and cheese Lángos was crispy, chewy and rich without becoming too much of a burden for the open appetite to bear (I wouldn’t wish it upon the full stomach of even my greatest enemy). My garlic and ham Lángos, moist, meaty and savory, was just as filling. It was the best single meal of our entire week in Budapest.
It didn’t, however, stop us from seeking out even better Lángos. Later that week, while stopping by the visiting Czech Beer Festival, we discovered that giant savory doughnuts can also be deep fried in animal fat.
This time around, I went the whole 82.296 decimeters: I asked for my lard enlivened lángos with sour cream, then placed a side order for a particularly seemly sauerkraut and piled pickled cabbage atop the monstrous hunk of fried dough. The resulting behemoth of fats and flavors was admittedly not as delicious as the fresh, everyday lángos from the roadside stand; nevertheless, it was a behemoth. The edges were crunchier, the innards were chewier, the greasy taste of the dough was heartier, and the tart, peppery combination of sauerkraut and sour cream cut through the heaviness of the lángos so well that, before I knew it, I had eaten enough to feed a pre-medieval Magyar tribe.
On the last morning of our trip, we had left more than enough instances of lángos untouched to motivate another trip to the Hungarian capital. I can see the itinerary now: a breakfast of pastries, fruit and coffee, lunch at Kádár and a quick trip to the bathhouse before shuffling off to try Lángos at a different farmer’s market on every day of the week. A light dinner wherever we can find it. A round of unicum and a round of beers wherever they’ll have us. That is a summer day.