Monday, June 22, 2020

The End of Kadar Etkezde.




No new posts since February is a record hiatus for this blog, but I have an excuse. There was a worldwide pandemic going on.. It is not that I didn’t want to write about it, but the Apocalypse can be distracting, and with so many writers busy with the same topic I felt others did it better. (Incidentally, that is the same excuse I give for why I don’t play bluegrass banjo.) I consider myself lucky that I left New York and returned to Budapest in mid February, just before the virus hit New York and Europe in full force. East Europe, for many reasons, managed to avoid the horrific death tolls seen in Italy, Spain, and ferchrissakes, the USA. Also, the covid-19 crisis in Hungary was a driving reason that Our Great Leader (May the Good Lord grant his favorite football teams victory) was voted emergency powers that some less forgiving (or more sentient) have likened to a dictatorship. One of those emergency powers is aimed at freedom of the press, particularly opposition bloggers and Facebook posters, some of whom have found the police knocking on their doors at dawn and a big black police car waiting outdoors. 

Lockdown Order extended...
The official explanation for this is to prevent the spread of misleading news about covid-19. And therefor I decided that I will not spread any misleading news. Given the prevailing atmosphere, I wouldn’t spread anything at all, viral or verbal. Hungarians are keenly apprehensive about what “outsiders” have to say about them, and foreign journalists regularly receive hyper-nationalistic complaints from various Local Lilliputian Mugwumps accusing them of “misrepresenting Hungary” … the problem is that now these have the force of law behind them. So, instead no opinion will be offered, unless you can find a way to buy me a socially distanced beer and listen to me complain in person from across a large picnic table. That said, I was stuck alone in our flat for three months, not venturing farther than our local market across the square.  During this time I collected, and froze, a decent percentage of Hungary's spring strawberry crop. Unlike most years, there were almost no imported strawberries for sale in our local markets, which is not a bad thing. Hungarian strawberries are fantastic at their seasonal best.

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May in Hungary: all local strawberries
Budapest is quickly getting back to normal, faster than I feel comfortable with. My district, which is both the Jewish Ghetto and the hyper-touristic “party district” is beginning to get a night life back, although I am not about to go out and enjoy a beer in public anytime soon. The Covid-19 virus seems specifically designed to seek me out and kill me. I tick off lots of the boxes for “Face certain death, Earthling!” so I have been safely cowering up in my third floor Fortress of Solitude, venturing out only to shop at our local market. 


On a much sadder note, among the casualties in the restaurant business is the best damn Hungarian restaurant I know of, Kadar’s Etkezde. Sometime around mid April a sign appeared on the Kadar announcing “For Sale”. This is not a minor event. This means that there is no longer any restaurant in Budapest that I can suggest to visitors looking for an authentic, home style Hungarian meal of any quality. My guess is that the owner and staff decided that rather than pay the overhead on the closed lunch spot they could just put the place up for sale and retire. 

The $5 goose Happy Meal -the Wednesday Special - packed to go.
I will sorely miss their Wednesday goose risotto, which we used to order for take out, allowing them to pack an unsightly huge half goose carcass and three fat wings on top of a huge portion of rice pilaf for FT 1500 (USD $5.00) Once we got it home I would strip the meat from the goose carcasses and it was well enough to make an another batch of goose risotto. I will also miss their sólet, the Hungarian Jewish version of the Yiddish cholent, which was the house specialty and the reason the Kadar was first opened in the 1950s and allowed to function as a private restaurant under Communism, in order to serve the hungry Jewish comrades working in the neighborhood who missed the comforts of old style Hungarian Jewish food, but didn't mind it being served next to a pork chop just in case any of the Marxist fundamentalists at work were interested in ratting on their Semitic comrades. 
Roast Goose Leg with Sólet
They used the breast meat from those goose carcasses for the goose meat loaf they served with the sólet, and the legs went with either sólet or braised red cabbage. The rest - carcasses and wings - went into the risotto, or more precisely, the pilaf. In Hungarian Jewish cooking goose replaces the role that pork has in Hungarian cooking. It provides meat, cooking fat, and soup stock, and until recently you could get amazing goose salami at the Orthodox kosher butchers shop on Dob utca down the street. Now I honestly can’t tell you where to go for home style goose meat anymore. I am sure you can find Hungarian Jewish sólet on some other menu in Budapest – it just won’t be from a specialist who has fifty years of experience in the genuine product.  

Goose meat loaf and sólet, also more food. 
Kadar fell into a beloved, and rapidly disappearing category: the non-Kosher Jewish restaurant. Most of my favorite places are "treyfeterias": Katz’s in NYC, Hobby’s in Newark, Chez Schwartz’ in Montreal. You can’t usually get ham in these places, but they will serve meat with cheese or sour cream. It weeds out the Glatt Kosher Orthos, but allows less fastidious Jews some sense of culinary safety. In places like new York, this cuts out a large segment of the Jewish customer base who still require strictly kosher food when out of the house. And kosher meals are usually at a premium price range – this killed the traditional cheap lunch at New York delicatessens in the 1970s, as more people adopted the stricter Hasidic “Glatt Kosher” rules and deli prices rocketed. But there will always be an attraction for non-kosher “Jewish style” deli food.  Nobody eats a Rueben sandwich because it tastes good… they eat it because it is a corned beef sandwich with sauerkraut and cheese on it. It has no tradition. Pastrami, now that carries tradition. In our family, clams have tradition. When I was 12 my father took me out to City Island, the fishing hamlet located at the tip of the Bronx, and introduced me to clams on the half shell. 

Mamaliga and raw clams, a meal unknown in traditional Romanian Jewish cuisine.
I believe that original clamfest was intended as a guarantee that I should never wear the culinary shackles of the Jewish Religion. No practicing Jew in his right mind would ever eat a live clam. A shrimp, maybe, hidden inside Chinese fried rice… but a clam? The only thing less kosher would be rabbit, or suckling pig in its mother’s milk. Since then clams have become a generational ritual in the family: my son, born in land locked Hungary, started wolfing down live bivalves when he was nine. I buy the clams at the Korean supermarket for dirt cheap - one can get a dozen for what you would spend on two clams in a restaurant. And then I shuck them, a technique that takes skill but all of my fingers are still attached to my hand, so I am doing something right. And my Dad is still eating those babies... my brother fed him oysters for his 94th birthday on June 20. The Old Man is still going strong. So Happy Fathers Day, Dad, and we still have dozens of clams to go. 



Thursday, February 06, 2020

Give me your tired, your poor, and also your sandwiches!

Clemente's Special Italian Sub, Hackensack, New Jersey.
It has been a Very New Jersey few months with no new posts. But believe me, I have excuses. Lots of excuses. How much can you say about New York and New Jersey that hasn't been said before, especially within the confines of this blog? You want to know about Paterson? We done it! The Bronx? I sincerely direct first time readers to our archives, wherein you can read about tiny hamburgers, chinese noodle soups, Balkan meatwads, Hungarian salamis, more tiny hamburgers, and wild boar goulash from Romania. With over fourteen years of content, bouncing between Budapest, New York, and the Balkans this blog should keep you amused for hours. Also I spent a couple of weeks in Hackensack Meridian Hospital, so that also counts as an excuse. Don't worry... I'm OK. But my post-sick-puppy recovery period limited my adventure range to New Jersey, causing me to shuttle from the Kosher vastness of Teaneck across the mighty Hackensack River to the exotic allure of ethnic eats in Hackensack. (Also, a lot of blood tests.)

Cosmo's Salumeria. 705 Main St, Hackensack, NJ 07601 (Closes at 6 pm!)
Yes, I will pronounce the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name: I love New Jersey! Unlike 85% of the people who spent time growing up in the Garden State and then left, I actually like New Jersey. One reason: the constantly changing ethnic mix in New Jersey means that we get to eat the best lunch food the world has to offer, much of which comes loaded between two hunks of bread with pepper sauce on top. Sandwiches, they good.

Cosmo's Salumeria. Mom and Pop style if Mom and Pop came from Italy.
(And no, we are not sharing any of our NJ sandwiches with Trumpito and his lackey, Stephen 'Haman' Miller (insider joke for Purim!) They will have to eat at McDonald's forever. They would very definitely not be welcomed in Hackensack. When I was first waking up in the Hospital, a nurse from the Dominican Republic asked me the required questions: "What is your name? What is the date? Do you know where you are? Who is the President of the United States?" to which I answered "Uh...OH FUCK NO!" "You OK, Papi, you gonna be alright.")

Ham, salami, home made mozzarella, hot pepper salad from Cosmo's. 
Our last post addressed the Italian hero sandwich, a marvel of local Italian American cuisine that has been sorely overlooked amidst the explosion of exotic local cuisines. Cosmo's Salumeria, a tiny Italian deli and sandwich shop somewhat outside of the business center of Hackensack has won a number of accolades, including Saveur magazine which called it "The Best Deli Sandwich in New Jersey." They might just be right. The sandwiches are huge, and the price is low for something this good. But you will be back.

Home made stuff for a seriously great sandwich.
Cosmo's is run by a real Italian Mom and Pop who make their unsalted mozzarella fresh daily, know all of their customers by name, have adorable Italian accents, and accept only cash. The menu list is small, take out only, with one pasta dish and one soup offered daily (for take out, of course.) Hackensack has a lot of Italian Americans, but as you get to South Hackensack and neighboring Lodi things become serious: families still speak Italian in the third generation down here, and they expect their food to reflect the quality you get in bella Italia. One place they find it is Clemente's Bakery, located in the Middle of Fucking Nowhere in South Hackensack.

Why Italy will rule the universe someday.
Clemente's began as a bakery in the 1970s, and I wish I had know about it before last week - they make real Pugliese bread... which may be my favorite of all breads. They also make nearly everything else, especially cookies, cakes, focaccia and pizzas. 


I can look but not touch. I have a woman from Tokyo who does that for me. 
Clemente's Bakery make a stuffed bread - we bought prosciutto and cheese - that is so popular that it is known around North Jersey as "Hackensack crack." This is not to be confused with another particularly Italian American specialty, the stromboli (basically a sandwich rolled into pizza bread and baked.) It was also ridiculously cheap for a large loaf of bread packed with chunks of prosciutto.

Hackensack Crack: prosciutto stuffed bread. 
But the reason I came to Clemente's was for the sandwiches. I had heard about the "Clemente Special" and I have to admit, it gives the sandwiches at Cosmo's Deli something to worry about. Like most Italian subs, it is made with ham, salami, fresh mozzarella (not Swiss cheese or provolone like on Italian subs outside the Jersey Italian belt) made without mayo - which makes it Fumie friendly - but they also have a list of extras that you can add, and I chose artichoke hearts, which really sent the combination over the top. This sandwich... words fail me. It is the flavor of greatness, anointed with the vinegar and olive oil of heaven. Italians of Europe - learn from your diaspora! Harken to your brethren in Hackensack and Lodi, NJ! Put down your paninis, your piadinas, your carrozzas, and your tramezzinos! Try an Italian hero from Hackensack! These are the sandwiches which can lead you to Greatness! These are sandwiches worthy of Caesar!

Click here for more hot ham on ham action!
This is not to say I ignored the sandwiches of my own People... for that I went to Katz' Deli on the lower East Side of Manhatten. Loyal readers will sigh and say "You always go to Katz's deli!" And it is true. At $20 a Katz' pastrami or corned beef is a pricey sandwich, but then again, it is the best. Where else in New York can you buy the worlds best of anything for twenty bucks? Really, I only eat here about once a year, and Jewish delis are a endangered breed in New York City, so... yes, Katz's.

A Pastrami sandwich and a Corned Beef sandwich meet in a bar.
My brother Ron braved driving into the city (four miles from where we live in Jersey) so that I could get my chompers wrapped around this thing I longed for while watching reruns of Seinfeld in my hospital bed. My morale was kept high by knowing that when I finally hobbled out of the ICU ward there would be a Katz' pastrami waiting for me out there. I actually fasted for the morning in anticipation, and it was worth it. And Ron loves Katz' pastrami as well. The man was a chef, and Katz' pastrami is the stuff chef's dreams are made of. 

This is not porn. This is a corned beef sandwich.
The best part of the experience: Pete Rushevsky, director of the New York Center for Traditional Music and Dance surprised me by inviting my friends Jake Shulmen-Ment (perhaps the world's best Klezmer fiddler) and Frank London (perhaps the world's best klezmer anything.) I didn't have a lot of time to be running around the city, so this was a wonderful surprise, and although not exactly my birthday, I am counting this as the first and best surprise birthday party I have had since 1986 (surprise dinner at the Hoodoo BBQ Ratskeller in Kenmore Square, Boston.) Thanks Pete! 

Up Front: Brother Ron and Frank, Pete in the back, Jake next to me, also Hi Abigale!