Friday, September 07, 2012
Büfé Đăng Mười: City wants to Close the Chinese Market? Dang! The Best Eats in Budapest.
Just as soon as I get inspired to update the blog with news of authentic Asian foods available in Budapest at the Four Tigers Chinese Market, along comes the Hungarian daily newspaper the Magyar Hirlap (once a truly great newspaper but since 2004 a shabby rag not worth wrapping fish with) with a story about how the eighth district Mayor and city council would like to shut the whole market down. For those of you who don’t read Hungarian, it seems that there was an altercation between two Arab guys attacking a Vietnamese stall keeper and his wife with swords a couple of weeks ago. (For some reason, all the weird crimes in Hungary tend to involve swords – usually of the decorative samurai variety. Mother-in-law murderers, angry truck drivers, drunken farmers, Arab money changers - all seem to have inexplicable access to a supply of samurai swords.) This altercation led to an investigative piece by the Hirlap reporters describing the market in hair-raising terms as a hotbed of crime, tax evasion, illegal weapon sales, customs transgressions, and all – around scary non-Hungarian badness. Needless to say the details in the article are shaky – the reporter claims that he encountered guys hawking fake tax receipts, brass knuckles, butterfly knives, and shock tazers as he entered the market. We have been going to the market two times a week for over ten years, and I have yet to be offered anything more than fake tax receipts, which have a far better market in tax-phobic Hungary than hand to hand weapons ever would. You don’t go to the Four Tigers Market for weapons. You go for rice noodles.The main reason I go to the market is to eat real, authentic Vietnamese and Chinese food, and to shop for Asian vegetables and groceries. Occasionally I buy some cheap blank DVDs, but mostly I purchase things involving rice noodles. And I am not the only one. My favorite Vietnamese spot is the Dang Muoi Bufe, located inside an ersatz Vietnamese grocery stall in the back of the Four Tigers Market (directly opposite Gate 3 – the “middle gate” of the Market. Pass the fornetti stand, the telephone sellers, and the little Chinese bufe by the entrance and march straight directly to the back end of the rows of stalls to the food shacks.) The Dang Muoi may not look like much – heck, it looks a lot less than much – but it takes my vote for the best restaurant in Budapest.The best Vietnamese for sure, but also the best soup, the best atmosphere, and definitely the best bargain of any eatery in town. You can argue with any of those points, perhaps rightfully so, and I simply don’t care. I like it. And so do Hungarian bloggers who have discovered it. The family who run this place have placed Xeroxed copies of Hungarian food blog reviews on the three picnic benches set up inside the tented grocery shack to advertise their fame in the Magyar food blog world. Almost every time we have been there this summer there has been a gaggle of curious Hungarian foodistas trying out the Vietnemese soups and slathering fish sauce over everything in sight. The Dang Muoi is all that is left of the row of Chinese and Vietnamese snack and soup shacks that once ran through this section of the market.There used to be the Chinese dumpling Lady and the hand pulled noodle shack, but now the area is completely Viet. The Chinese seem to have moved across the street to the wholesale market, leaving the Vietnamese (and in other section of the Market, the Turks) to feed the workers and shoppers who swarm here daily. The lunch shacks here are really not for the faint of heart – if you are obsessed with prissy concepts like neatness or table reservations do not bother making the trip. By some kind of quiet agreement, no restaurant inspectors ever seem to make the trip to the market shacks, and so it should stay. You are here for the pho - the Vietnamese noodle soup of the Immortals, the potage equivalent to the Vision on the Road to Damascus, the Alpha and Omega of Rice noodles and Sriracha sauce. I used to look for the stands that had Vietnamese signs lettered on cardboard scraps “pho” soup… but Dang Muoi Bufe (Büfé Đăng Mười) has a large poster illustrating all of the nearly twenty options on offer. Pho bo is the classic Vietnamese meal in a bowl, full of flat rice noodles, beef, coriander, and a tangy broth you can add to with chili sauce or vinegar and hot pepper sauce from jars on the tables. A big serving comes in a bowl that would sit nicely at the center of any Hungarian family’s Sunday lunch table, and probably holds more tender beef as well. There is no dainty way to eat pho. You can use forks and knives, you can try chopsticks, but basically the “attack and slurp” method works best. Vietnamese are famous in Asia for their sloppy chopstick technique so there is no reason for you to feel self conscious about the orange cloud of broth materializing around your head as you dig in. Rice noodles are not designed for easy eating. Try the bun bo hue if you want thin rice noodles in spicy beef broth – not for the rice noodle beginners.The rice plate (com phan) consists of a choice of about twelve options you point at and have loaded onto your plate: BBQ pork belly, fried sardines, curry chicken, tofu, marinated hardboiled eggs, fried spring rolls, Asian greens, pickled cabbage, salad… just point and hope for the best. But the real choice to make on the hot days of summer is bun cha – fresh barbecued pork slices served on a bed of cold rice noodles and salad with plenty of mint, basil and coriander, topped with crushed peanuts, accompanied by a side dish of a plastic bowl filled with tangy cold broth made from fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and water.You wrestle a mess of noodles and meat onto your chopsticks and dip it into the sauce or you can take it easy and just dump a bunch of the noodles and shrubbery into the broth and alternate bites of cold brothy noodles with grilled meat. Bun nem is the same set up with crispy Vietnamese spring rolls – nem – instead of grilled pork, and happens to be my favorite.Pricing is usually around FT800 for a small plate or bowl (which is pretty large) and FT 1000 for a large serving (including the bun cha/nem sets.) Dang Muoi also offers a selection of Asian cold drinks, such as lotus nut drink, sickeningly sweet lemonade, and black bean drink.Black bean drink is one of those things I can never quite wrap my brain around, but everybody else likes it. Think of it as a cold, sweet black bean soup in a glass of ice. On a hot day, it is quite filling in itself. They also offer Vietnamese iced coffee – cà phê đá – which is a shot of super strong French espresso served with condensed sweetened milk AND sugar over ice. Personally, I prefer to wander over to the neighboring shack for my coffee, where the guy at the “deli” window offers the choice of “sweet or bitter” (edes vagy keseru.) Bitter means your iced coffee is only condensed milk sweet, not diabetes-inducing sugared sweet. Either way, it is the best iced coffee in a town where iced coffee still means a hot coffee with an ice cube tossed into it. If you do check out the Dang Muoi, remember that it is a small place serving a lot of people – take out within the market is a big part of their business – so don’t expect to stroll in and get a table for six easily. Its best to go just before the lunch rush or just after, but after 2 pm you run the risk of no more bun cha or much left on the steam table (so you go with pho.)The tables are picnic tables you share with everybody else while sitting beneath crates of ramen noodles and bags of rice. When you are done, you can even pick up all the Vietnamese ingredients you need to reproduce your meals at home – from fish sauce to coriander. We usually shop at the market stall next door. The guy two stalls down speaks English and his fish freezer sells the cheapest shrimp in Budapest and – if you can convince him to let you dip into his restaurant stocks – restaurant quality frozen squid, bigger than the small one-kilo squid you can usually find in Chinese groceries.And now the Magyar Hirlap wants to take all this away from me.And the Mayor of the eighth district (last famous for criminalizing homelessness in his district) chimed in saying the city council should close the entire market down and replace it with a “green belt” park featuring skate board ramps and basketball courts and… a lot less Chinese businesses. Making this stretch of Budapest into a green belt is a project only slightly less realistic than, say, terraforming Mars or cloning a triceratops. We’ve seen this all before. Hysterical news articles about the imminent demise of the Chinese market have been appearing for years, and yet they are still there, selling kitchen wares, slurping noodles, minding their own business while making sure the underpaid proletariat of the world can continue to clothe themselves in cheap underwear. I’m sure that an amicable solution will be worked out between the city and the management of the market in the traditionally accepted manner: over drinks and with big suitcases stuffed with cash pushed across a table. I’m not too worried that the market will be disappearing soon, but you never can tell when dealing with the eighth district. I may have to up my pho quotient this fall. Just in case.