Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Roma Ételbar: Hungarian Food in the Post-Kadar Era

Marha pőrkőlt: when people want 'goulash' (Roma Ételbar)

When somebody asks me to recommend a good authentic Hungarian restaurant in downtown Budapest these days, I can't. I live in the 7th district "Party Quarter" which is still - invisibly - the Jewish Ghetto. This area is crowded with bars and eateries catering to the swarms of tourists - both foreign and domestic - who pack into local hostels and Air B&Bs within staggering distance of the bars and clubs, most of them operated by fly-by-night bizniz sleazebags who could not care less about the negative impact they have on one of Budapest's most unique residential neighborhoods. People in this community know each other - many have lived in its flats for generations. We greet each other by name on the street. We have resident forums in the park. If you actually live in this district it can feel more like a village than a downtown Budapest neighborhood. What we don't have is a decent Hungarian restaurant. 

Krumplis tészta at Roma Ételbar (veggie-friendly spuds 'n' noods)

There are lots of Hungarian restaurants in Modern Magyarland, so you would think that all you had to do to find some good honest goulash or a nice country style bean soup is to wander down to the corner, pay a reasonable price, and tuck in. Sorry, that doesn't happen anymore. Most Hungarian restaurants kind of suck, for lack of a better term. Well, at least many do. There used to be a lot more of the non-sucking variety, but they are getting sparser on the ground (or are found way out yonder in Óbuda, fer chrissakes. The Kéhli, for example.). Many aspire to either some mis-imagined version of Magyar haute cuisine, or they serve some crazed fusion dreamed up while working in the kitchen of a cruise ship or German hotel - which is where a shocking number of Hungarian culinary school graduates end up ( explaining the strange and now almost universal custom of sprinkling dried parsley all over the edges of the serving plates and adding ginger and pineapple to dishes where pineapple simply do not belong.) Hungarian food is peasant food, at its best simple, filling, and made with local ingredients. Károly Gundel, the famed restauranteur, knew this when he stressed the essence of Hungarian cuisine began with simply "frying onions in lard."

When Yorkville was still the center of the universe.
I was raised on Hungarian cooking. Growing up in the Bronx my Mom used to take us to Manhattan to the Hungarian enclave in Yorkville  on Second Avenue to shop at the legendary Hungarian grocery Paprikás Weissz, to stock up on hurka at the Hungarian butcher, and bring home big, very un-American loaves of real Hungarian bread. I love Hungarian food, and my family heritage here is rooted in the food industry. So yes, I am intolerant of bad, overpriced, crappy Hungarian food. I have a right to be. I have eaten the good stuff.

Hungarian Yorkville... now just a memory.
One reason Hungarian restaurants have declined in quality is the astonishingly low pay for trained chefs. If a chef is any good he will get recruited for an Austrian resort hotel or a Belgian cruise liner. I just perused a few online ads for chefs in Budapest... want to make $6.00 an hour making tapas in a fancy downtown tourist joint? That's also the advertised pay rate for a chef at the famous Gerbeaud Cafe... the best advertised chef positions in Hungary pay around US$800 -$1000 a month. You can make four times that in Germany, and so that is where capable Hungarian chefs go, later to return to Hungary sprinkling parsley everywhere and adding ginger and pineapple to their Kalbshnitzel Asiatische arte. The folks working the kitchens here at home tend to be either inexperienced youngsters fresh out of cooking school or grizzled old reprobates too sozzled to hold a job in Austria. And it is reflected the food you are served. 

Székely Gulyás... has nothing to do with either Székelys or goulash. 
As we noted on this blog, our local favorite, the Kadar Étkezde, closed last year, a financial victim of the first phase of the covid-19 pandemic. The Kadar was an étkezde, which are small restaurants that often only serve a limited menu for lunch, and are often located off the main streets in small, unassuming shop fronts. Although I doubted anything could ever replace our beloved Kadar, I had heard that the Roma Ételbar, an étkezde in Buda, had closed down in 2019, but it had such a loyal following that a few young investors got together and reopened it, preserving not only the original décor and menu, but hiring the original owner, Cica, to keep the spirit of the place going as well. We had to try it. Luckily, it is located a few blacks away from our health clinic, so we gave it a try. The first person you meet as you approach the place is the legendary owner, Cica.

Kitten in command
Cica ("kitten") is in her late 70s, having run the Roma for over 36 years, but she still shows up every day and takes her seat by the door, making sure that everyone is happy and aware of the specials and that they know they would really like a bowl of cold cherry soup or glass of good old retro raspberry syrup soda to go with their meals. She is lot more than a hostess. She is the étkezde Goddess. One must Obey Her. The food at Roma is classic Hungarian lunch: beef or pork paprika stews, tripe (pacal) with potatoes, and potato pasta, a surprisingly good simple mix of paprika spuds and thick square noodles that reflects the older, hardier meals that kept our grandparents going before protein became affordable. The salads are familiar to anybody who has ever sat at Grandma's table: cucumbers in sour cream, simple sliced tomato, cabbage and horseradish.
What is this tripe that sits before me?
The Roma doesn't have a huge menu, but everything at the Roma Ételbar is a perfect version of a Hungarian classic dish. It is a must visit if you have visitors from abroad who want Magyar flavor without the fru-fru and snotty waiters. Also, it is convenient to the Buda Castle - where no sentient being should ever even  consider sitting down and ordering anything beyond a Snickers bar. (I know that the Mekons enjoyed a lunch at the Roma a couple of years ago when they were in Budapest, so there is a good chance you will too. The Mekons have exquisite taste.)

Also: I recommend going while the weather is nice: they have great outdoor seating on the street, but avoid going in large groups because they are not really set up for it. It may be in one of the least appealing aluminum and cement neighborhoods of Buda, at Csalogány utca 20 between Széna tér and Batthyány metro stations, but it is an island of wonderfulness in a sea of cement. And do not go late: the Roma is open for business every day between 11 AM and 4 PM. We usually try to get there before noon, at the latest, to avoid waiting for a table.


Tom Popper said...

Corvin Travel, featuring IKKA! Great old pic! The neighbor, Csalogány 26, made it into Michelin Guide, but I know Hungarians who only think of Roma Ettelbar when you mention eating on Csalogány utca.

zmkc said...

The Rákóczi vendéglő outside the Rákóczi market is really simple & old-fashioned. Even in the depths of lockdown as you can see from this photograph - https://photos.app.goo.gl/upvGWL5j4jV5zDq88 - it had patrons, if not very vivacious ones

dumneazu said...

I used to be the chef at the Csiga, across the street from the Rákóczi Vendéglő, just about the time the Rákóczi opened... during the late Bronze Age, just before the destructive appearance of the Sea Peoples. So of course I never set foot inside. I used to use my ethnographic background to interview the folks who worked at the Rákóczi market about "what makes a good gulyás" and spent months attempting to make the best authentic gulyás in Budapest. Problem was that Hungarian customers would look at the menu, which included international bar food like Caribbean fish croquesttes and fried squid, and then settle on the the most familiar thing: gulyás... which was served with big fluffy galushka dumplings floating in it and priced below FT 1000. We would sell out of gulyás before 9 pm. Then the Gypsy Orchestra from the Nemzeti Szalloda would roll in around midnight - all dressed up in shiny purple suits and reeking of hair oil - and order Philadelphia steak sandwiches one after another until they were all gone.

zmkc said...

You write so vividly, play so brilliantly & worked as a chef? Well blow me down. I'm not fond of the Csiga because of the international bar food. They've got some competition from an unappealing new place that I think calls itself a bistro on the corner of the market building. We found a nice place the other day that claims to be Czech but does pretty standard gulyasleves etc just near the Kodály körönd. Called Ferdinand on a street parallel with Andrássy.