24+ chowhoundish detours on the way to dinner in budapest


I’ve never thought of myself as a foodie, and in fact more or less bristle at the word.  But somewhere on a different scale entirely from the one that separates essen from fressen, there are Chowhounds, and the paradigmatic Chowhound is Jim Leff – the creator and former paterfamilias  of http://chowhound.com -- and with Jim as a model it’s impossible to imagine five Chowish evenings in Budapest to set alongside the five foodie dinners in Budapest I suggest in the Foodie Budie section of this website.  Jim is capable of stopping at half a dozen places on his way to the particular goal du jour, a cup of yogurt here, a cookie there, investigating an ingredient source just off the road over yonder…and then hitting two or three places on the way home as well (I mean serious additions to the day, not just dessert or coffee; something heavy and savory and deep-fried, ideally perhaps curry-based).

My guiding chowhoundish light in Budapest is a Klezmer musician named Bob Cohen who posts to the International board in Chowhound under the nom de gourmand of Zaelic (Jim’s a musician as well...what is it with these guys?  I guess oral is oral...).  Bob was the first person to point me in the direction of places that were affordable, interesting and off the tourist radar.  It’s been half a dozen years since then and other friends have helped me fend off starvation and depression when dinner time approaches...the suggestions here derive from my own grazing in part, but most were initially recommendations from Eliane Pickermann or George Karpati, and a couple of others here and there.

So in Jim’s picaresque spirit, and on the theory that a really good place is worth a detour, here are a Fresser’s dozen places each worth treating as a destination; whichever one you pick, treat the others as detours worthy of the diversion:

  1. BulletRetes is the Hungarian word for strudel (or, more properly, strudel is the German word for retes); I am not a big fan of the genre, but I sure am a big fan of this one retes place (there are shops dotting the city that sell only retes, usually called Retes Bolt, meaning ‘Retes Shop’...catchy, huh?); only one is worth a detour, but that one is so good that I dream about it when I am in the USA.  A hole in the wall on Lehel utca, just before Róbert Károly körut, it says RETES above the door and is open 7am to 7pm Monday-Friday on the days it’s open (they shut for anything approximating a holiday and for much of the summer).  It’s way out far away from anything remotely tourist-y, but boy is it good strudel.  The savory cabbage strudel is just pefect (see Nora Ephron’s paean to the concept of cabbage strudel by clicking here).  The fruit strudels with fresh fruit in season are spectacular.  Warm, just out of the oven, making big grease stains on the paper bag.  Something like $.75 a piece.

  2. BulletLangos at the Ecseri flea market.  Langos is fried dough.  Every culture seems to have fried dough; Hungary ups the ante by frying it in lard and then allowing you to add sour cream, shredded cheese, and thick garlicked oil on top of it.  It’s got those great fried dough qualities -- warm, crisp outside, steamy soft inside, what could be better than a combination of fat and carbs oozing droplets of lard.  It took me a long time to work up the cojones to try these, fearing immediate death by coronary after the first bite.  Now I’m hooked.  I’m certain my life has been shortened measurably by the addiction.  The ones at the Flea Market at Ecseri are best I think; the ones in the Central Market Hall are rather good as well.  Volume is probably the most important thing -- the more turnover the likelier the Langos will be fresh from the fryer -- followed by the quality of the cheeses and the raw power of the garlic goo.

  3. BulletFried Chicken on Semmelweiss utca (hazi libamaj -- house-made gooseliver as an afterthought).  There is a poultry butcher on Semelweiss utca by Vitkovicz utca. Open Monday-Friday and Saturday mornings.  In the back they sell fried chicken.  Sometimes over-salted, always kind of wonderful.  There’s usually a line out the door.  They also sell interesting salamis and sausages and smoked hunks of birds, and a house-made foie gras that’s just a cooked gooseliver in a hunk of its own fat that has your name on it.  I don’t wait on lines for movies or restaurants, ever.  I wait on this line.  On the map below, it's on Semmelweiss utca, just above the second 'm' in "Semmelweiss".

  1. BulletA Short Guide to the Central Market (it may be short but it got too long to keep here, so see the separate page)

  2. BulletTurkey and mangalica kolbasz at the Central Market (see the Central Markethall page) Kolbasz is kielbasa, and mangalica is boar, sort of, a kind of venerated pig with lots of Hungarian urban legend myths associated with it (“mangalica has no fat” or “mangalica has no cholesterol” or “mangalica is wild boar” ... since they sell mangalica lard, the first of these has a status that verges on Emperor’s clothes self-delusion; the rest don’t follow very far behind once you Google 'mangalica').  But turkey kolbasz is an inspiration.  While you're in the wurst of times, ask for debrecener wurst as well.

  3. BulletForest Mushrooms at the Central Market (see the Central Markethall page)

  4. BulletThe Farmers’ Market at the Central Market (see the Central Markethall page)

  5. BulletMilk (see the Central Markethall page)

  6. BulletCheese ... The best cheese is not at the Central MArket, but is imported by Tamas Nagy, and is sold at his cheese shop on Gerloczy utca, which is a kind of special place all around, though not cheap and not especially Hungarian.  He’s got a salami shop in the square in front of the Gerloczy Café around the corner.  Oxford University Press’ Budapest showroom is just by the cheese shop by the way, and if you walk past it to Semmelweiss utca and take a right, there’s a great English language used book shop, the Red Bus.  A Hunk of cheese, an English language book, and thou...And then a block later the chicken shop and its fried chicken and libamaj...

  7. BulletAsian Specialties (see the Central Markethall page) In the basement.

  8. BulletWild Meats (see the Central Markethall page)

  9. BulletBacon (see the Central Markethall page)  Ham in Hungary is generally speaking a lost cause.  But bacon saves the day, in infinite variety, with and without paprika, and with or without having been smoked.  It is well worth buying half a dozen varieties and figuring out what you think of them.  A bacon tasting... Then try to figure out where you got them and how to ask for more of the one you liked most.

  10. BulletPickles/Horseradish (see the Central Markethall page). In the basement.

  11. BulletKnives (see the Central Markethall page). On the mezzanine.

  12. BulletStreet Palacsinta: Crepe is French for palacsinta and palacsinta was what my mother used as a way to cajole me into the things I was otherwise utterly unwilling to do at the age of 5.  There are lots of shops devoted to just palacsinta in Budapest, but the best street palacsinta is way the hell out at the end of the Red Metro line, at Örs Vezér tere.  As you come out the far end of the underpass you’ll see a large Match market in a shopping center dead ahead, and a line of huts opposite it with fast foods and hot dogs and the like.  One is a palacsinta stand, and the crepes themselves have just the right texture.  Their apricot jam is pretty wonderful, and you might try to convey that you want lots of jam.  About $.60 per crepe.  Worth the ride.  And there’s an Ikea to the left of the Match.

  13. BulletRestaurant Palacsinta: The best is at Café Bouchon.  Home made apricot jam.  I think it’s not on the menu, but generally available if you ask.  Great crepes, just the right texture -- soft and fluffy but also al dente, puckered a bit, hinting of egg.  Insane jam.  Insane. (when they have it; when they run out you have to wait until next summer) Its only rival is in Tokaj, 2 hours away by car, at the Grof Degenfeld Castle.

  14. BulletEtkezdek: Like most places, Budapest has cheap places to eat on the run.  These are typically called etkezdekˆ(that’s the plural, see the k?).  They tend to be open for lunch and that’s it.  One has become famous and is in several guidebooks, and is quite good -- the Kadar etkezde on Klauzal ter; it’s almost unmarked, so you need to walk around the square and know that you are looking for #9.  A block past the Whirlpool shop.  On the map below, Klauzal ter is the green trapezoid towards the bottom; it's at the bottom of the square, between Nyar and Nagy.

Basically, you need to check the various etkezdek out, there’s no real English language guide to them all, which would be a major boon, as some are wonderful and many suck.  One particularly good one is Norbi on Tátra almost at Katona József utca.  Lines out to the street.  In general, at lunch time, that’s the sign of a good etkezde...follow the lines.  On the map below, it's on Tatra, just above the post office (the post office is the letter icon in the red box).

  1. BulletJeg Bufe See the Cafés and Cukraszdak page for the range of pastry, but the Jêg Bufé is worth a trip even if you are not a pastry person.  It’s not that it’s so great, no pastry in Budapest really holds its own against the best of Vienna.  But the feel of the place, the look, and the very good pastry makes it worth a trip, and its location at the center of everything makes the trip short and easy.  The Jeg Bufé lasted out the communist era and is still run in a manner that is reminiscent of those times.  It’s daunting for the non-Hungarian speaker, but well worth working up one’s willingness to seem like a fool and a foreigner, and giving it a shot.  The routine is that you pay first, get a receipt, then take the receipt to the counter and the counterperson assembles your order.  Since no one seems to speak any English (almost unique in Budapest), it feels impossible the first time, but pointing and gesturing and gurgling garbled Hungarian pastry names seemed to work reasonably well for me at first and I have since committed names and pronunciations of my favorites to memory.  And they only laughed at me the time I walked in carrying a garbage can under one arm.  Otherwise, all my linguistic incompetence was taken in stride.  In any event, the petits fours (mignons) are great, as are the cheese pastries called Turos Taska which come out of the oven early in the morning (around 8:00am) and are insanely good then; the only pastry in Budapest that tastes buttery to me…pronounced tu-rosh tashka; I also like the triangular 7-layer cake called Piramis (peer-ah-mish) and the marcipan (mahr-tsi-pahn; accent always on the first syllable) cake, and the dobos (do-bohsh) torte). Ok, the turos taska at 8:00am holds its own against anything in Vienna.  Other pastry places worth a visit...Daubner, Nandori, Krisztal, all on the Cafés page. And there’s a place on ulloi, with a Pepsi sign above the door, past Erkel utca, that makes marvelous linzer and other cookies.  Closes very early on Saturdays, closed much of the summer.  And there’s a place on Baross, past Maria utca, almost to the körut, a small bakery on the left side of the street with excellent cookies.  Excellent cookies, but rather poor cakes.  And a place in Buda on Villanyi utca, next to the optician at #60, which makes the best Moscauer cookies (a kind of chocolate coated lace florentine) in town.

  2. BulletTrofea -- a  microchain of two all-you-can-eat Hungarian buffets.  The one in Buda just over the Margaret Bridge is more upmarket and touristy.  The one on Visegrádi utca isn’t even listed on their primary website; you have to know the secret URL: http://www.trofeagrill.net/index.php?page=18&lang=en But that’s the one the Hungarians go to, and it has a wonderful array of Hungarian dishes plus an odd grill-to-order buffet of marinated meats and a dessert buffet that I’ve never managed to maintain enough room for.  All you can drink wine/beer.  Arrive early, flat rate for the meal.  There is usually at least one birthday party going on, and once there was a wedding party of about 50 people to our left.  The fried chicken is great.  The duck is very good indeed.  Almost everything is at least a decent example of its genre, and there are tens and dozens of different Hungarian dishes.  This is the immersion course in Hungarian food.  A George Karpati tip.

  3. BulletCastro Bisztro best gulas soup in Budapest.  Not always on the menu, worth asking for when it isn’t.  Complex and subtle and smart.;  Otherwise, the place is not as interesting as it used to be, but still a hangout for the people who hang out there.  Bob Cohen of Di Naye Kapelye klezmer band turned me on to this place and the Kadar etkezde before either got mentioned elsewhere.  Then he mentioned it to TimeOut and a range of other guides, so now there’s a lump of tourists in the summers, but the gulas is just as good.  High speed internet connection...

  4. BulletGoose Breast It’s hard to get good goose in Budapest, but it’s hard to get goose at all elsewhere, so I order it relentlessly.  One consistently decent source is a fast food spot in the food court of the West End Mall, all the way in the back, called something like Vitamix.  A steam table and there’s goose breast if you watch the signs and look out for liba.  Sometimes dry but often quite good.  Expensive compared to the other dishes, but not too pricey at all.  The red cabbage is just fair.

  5. BulletGoose Leg at Kanaan.  The best goose I’ve had in Budapest was at a restaurant called Kanaan, a place George Karpati turned me on to.  On Pannonia utca and Csanády utca.  Very good all around, but the goose is the grail.

  6. BulletPork with Frizzled Onions in a Pond of Cholesterol.  Just give me a ship and a bottle of Lipitor to steer her by...at the Vista restaurant, just behind the start of Andrassy ut at Erzsebet ter.  An interesting place with a wide variety of engagingly quirky aspects and solid traditional Hungarian cooking.  In particular, the Crispy Pork Bites (meaning something between chitlins and bacon and flirting with pork chops). Roasted (meaning fried, as it often does on Hungarian menus) and Served with Potatoes and Fried Onion Rings seemed worth crossing the korut for, if not a full-fledged detour.  But the hankering to come back from afar ups the ante to full-fledged detour-generation.  There is free Internet access and the place caters to travelers (it’s apparently owned by a travel agency; this is part of a broader Budapest phenomenon: there doesn’t seem to have to be any linkage at all between the various things a store sells…one place I know of devotes half of its space to books and half to used sheets and linens; another place sells flowers, houseplants, wine, and liquor; this place thinks booking plane tickets and serving food go together).  And inevitably the differing enterprises sort of meld into each other.  So here, weary travelers can come and just rest a bit.  There’s a childcare area where kids can romp around with toys; there’s the internet and email section, there’s a lounge.  Customers are encouraged to write their impressions on the placemats.  And some of those get printed on the back of the menu (which has immortalized disparaging comments about many of the place’s signature dishes; you really have to go there if only to read the back of the menu).  Another Karpati Call. 

  7. BulletGerbeaud In Budapest, everyone comes to Gerbeaud’s, so here’s the straight scoop: Avoid the pastry, go for the salad and the libamaj paté.  My friend-in-food Barbara Somlo confirms this assessment (and she must know, they named Somloi Galuska after her).  And the house Tokaji wine (made by Janos Arvay, for my money the best of the Tokaj wineries).

  8. BulletTokaj: You’ll get it from them often enough...The wine of kings, the king of wines.  But it’s the real deal if you head for the high end bottles that you can’t find elsewhere.  Anything from Istvan Szepsy, or his co-owned vineyard Kiralyudvar.  From Degenfeld, Andante cuveé.  And especially from Janos Arvay, almost anything, but Edes Elet is a very special cuveé.  He makes the house Tokaj for Gerbeaud and it’s a bargain, but not his best stuff.  You can find a good selection of his wine at Iz-lelo at Arany Janos 12 utca, a bit north of the Gresham Palace.  And for a bargain Tokaji cuvee, look for wines by the Vayi vineyard. For a dry Tokaj Furmint, Oremus Mandolas.

  9. BulletSpeaking of Iz-Lelo, their chocolates are very, very good and comparatively inexpensive compared to serious chocolate shops in Paris or New York.  And there’s a chocolate boutique on Veres Palne, next to the Big Ben Teahaz, with a serious array of artisanal candies.

  10. BulletLemon Ice at the Bulldog,a cukraszda with little else to distinguish itself but proximity to the Central Market and the best lemon sorbetto in Hungary, and perhaps beyond. 

  11. BulletBudapest Wine Festival takes place in late August each summer and is a hell of a way to spend an afternoon.  Pay admission and they give you a glass.  Then you can buy wine by the glass from more than a hundred vineyards from all over Hungary, with representatives from the vineyard to answer your increasingly slurred and incoherent questions.  The food at the various stalls is straightforward grilled sausage and the like, but good and not expensive.


erst kommt dass Fressen...

The Germans wisely have two quite distinct words for ‘eating’: ‘essen’ -- which is what people do, and ‘fressen’ -- which is what animals do.  I’ve always come down pretty squarely on the Fresser side of the trough.  And this page is for my fellow fressers, most especially my mentors-at-the-trough Jim Leff and Bob Cohen...