Channeling my mother's kitchen

 
 
 

To begin at the beginning. Hungarian food is not (in the words of my favorite Hoosier federal district court judge) what it used to was.  As I bemoan elsewhere, echoing and ricocheting around this website, no one cooks like my mother did, no restaurant reminds me even remotely of the neighborhood Yorkville Hungarian restaurants of my NYC childhood and youth.  The palate’s pretty pallid.


But so it goes.  I just have to get used to thinking in Proustian terms of a lost Golden Age evoked by paprika-smudged fingers, smells of caramelizing onions, and the sweet acerbic bite of cucumber salad.


There may be great food explorations getting underway in Budapest, but where do you go for Hungarian Hungarian food, if you’re looking for a taste of pre-1940 Hungary?


Don’t expect delicatessen other than variations on salami and sausage...no pastrami, no brisket, no ham to speak of.  Don’t expect rye bread or ‘corn’ bread or pumpernickel.  Don’t expect delicious strudel with plump fruit wrapped in buttery paper-thin sheets of pastry to leap out of every shop that thinks it’s a strudel (retes) shop.


For different reasons, don’t expect goulash at all.  The Hungarian word is gulas, and it’s a thin, but highly flavored, soup, not a stew.  The thing you’re thinking of is more like a pörkölt (a paprika-based stew) or a paprikas. And don’t expect the chicken paprikas to be routinely rich or flavorful.  Don’t expect to see lecso (the traditional tomato/peppers/onions simmered meal/condiment) on lots of menus. 


But do expect üborka salata (cucumber salad) to be pretty good and paradicsom salata (tomato salad) to be surprisingly good much of the time that tomatoes are in season.


And herewith my list of greatest hits, mostly with a pretty low threshold of greatness but some getting up there to compete with what I think comes out of my kitchen when I fling myself at a stove in self-defense:


Best Gulas: The Castro Bisztro.  Very good alternatives: the Gerloczy Café, Café Bouchon.


Best Pörkölt: Borbirosag’s veal paprikas. Gerloczy Café’s beef stew, Café Bouchon’s beef goulash.


Best Chicken Paprikas: Gundel; Gresham Kavehaz and Pava (mine is better than any of these).


Best Stuffed Pepper: The steam table on the mezzanine of the Central Markethall (best of a woeful lot).


Best Hungarian fried chicken: Trofea Grill.  The Sunday brunch at the Gellert.  The chicken butcher shop on Semmelweiss utca.


Best Roast Goose: Kanaan’s goose leg; the steam table at the Vitamix fast food place in the West End Mall food court; there’s a very good duck leg with red cabbage at Búsuló Juhász and also at the Café Central.


Best Wiener Schnitzel:  The Gresham Kavehaz and Pava; Café Central.


Best Palacsinta: In a restaurant: Café Bouchon; on the street: the Palacsinta stand at Örs Vezer tere at the end of the Red Metro in Pest.


Best Retes (strudel): The Retes Bolt (shop) on Lehel utca off Róbert Károly körüt.


Best Hungarian Restaurants:  Café Bouchon; Café Kör; Búsuló Juhász; Norbi etkezde; Kadar etkezde; and in a quirky way Trofea Grill.



 

There may be great food explorations getting underway in Budapest, but where do you go if you’re looking for a taste of pre-1940 traditional Hungarian food on your trip to Hungary?