As Anthony Bourdain's unfotunate encounter with Romanian public opinion fades into the vaugue white noise of the blogosphere, we have to ask: if Bourdain came to Hungary, would things be all that different? Probably not. Last week my parents were in Budapest, causing me to go out to a lot of restaurants I would never normally approach with a ten foot pole. Legit eateries, ones that have table cloths and snooty waiters. And guess what? I was appalled - at the food, at the prices, at the service. I live here, but we tend to eat at home or in small étkezde lunch shops outside of the downtown, so it has been a while since I got to see for myself how mediocre the restaurant scene for traditional Hungarian food has become in Budapest. And most of all: you can not find a decent bowl of gulyás in the Hungarian capitol city. Of course, Bourdain would have been looking for a decent bowl of "goulash" and I am sure his minders would have alerted the chefs at the top Ministry of Tourism-preffered resturants in advance to cook up a batch of the real stuff, not the crap they serve tourists in little table sized kettles designed to evoke the huge bogrács kettles used to make legitimate gulyás out in the countryside. You can get decent gulyás outside of Budapest with relative ease. Basically, gulyás is a beef soup with potatos, paprika, and maybe, depending on the regional style, a smattering of flour and egg pinched dumplings. Easy, right? Well, it used to be that you coulod get a good bowl almost everywhere... I mean, this is hungary, right? Wrong. For one thing, beef quality took a nosedive after 1990 when the old communist collectivized beef farms - ranches, really - were sold off to smaller ownerships. Good beef production needs a large ranch or feed lot operation to operate, and as the State owned collectives were auctioned off most owners bought smaller lots and switched to raising dairy cows on a smaller, family scale operations. The result: stringy, tough dairy cow meat instead of the traditional quality beef that Hungary used to be famous for. Another reseaon is the training that Hungarian restaurant chefs get at the primary level. Everybody is still trained in state chef schools that turn out ready made kitchen staff, and everybody cooks pretty much the same. When I used to work at the Csiga as a pub chef, I made an attempt to make the best gulyás soup in Budapest. (Pictured above, in my home style version.) Every afternoon I would query the old timers who sat at the bar about what makes a good gulyás. Good beef. Onion, potato, paprika, mayorana, pepper, and egg-flour csipetke dumplings (hey - we are all from west Hungary around here...) No carrots, celery, or flour thickeners. To start I used to get a whole cow spine from the butchers to use for stock. The wait staff, however, were appalled that my gulyás didn't follow the state guidelines for gulyás (a miserly eight deka of meat per serving, made up for by the addition of - horrors! - carrots.) It was a damn good gulyás, mind you, and not technically illegal. The problem was that if you serve a good, honest portion of gulyás soup the Hungarian customers will probably not order anything else on the menu. And so it was. Until the gulyás sold out, nobody ordered anything else.
After a while I gave up trying to impress my folks and just took them to the places I would normally eat. For gulyás leves, it was the Kafana, Chef Nenad Angelic' Serb restaurant on Molnar utca. Nenad is from the Voivodina, which is a cultural extension of the Hungarian plains, and so for gulyás his may well be the best available in Pest. Just ignore the carrots.