Budapest's Must Eats
Budapest is not just a drunken stag/hen party destination for Western Europeans and Brits. It's also a much over-looked gastronomical wonderland. It's a haven for thick meat stews, casseroles, foie gras, gourmet sandwiches and soups, kebabs, pizza, fine dining, and scrumptious baked goods. Here's my list of absolute must-eat things in Budapest, with a focus on the things that make it unique.
Langos (Lan-gosh) is by far one of Hungary's greatest inventions. Although Langos is anything but creative, it's delicious in its simplicity and no-holds barred, chest-pounding goodness. Langos is simply a deep-fried flatbread. Sound familiar? Well the toppings are what make Langos unique. In Canada we might throw icing sugar or cinnamon on it, or Italians might fill it with cheese. Hungarians, however, throw on garlic oil, sour cream, cheeses, or go wild with bacon, smoked sausage, red onions, and whatever else. It's extremely heavy, and eating it more often than rarely will assuredly bring you to an early grave. But as soon as that soft, rich dough and oil fill your mouth, you'll stop caring. It's worth it.
The best one by far is at a small stand at Arany Janos utca (street) metro entrance. A plain one is around 200-300 forint, and an absolutely loaded one will be 850. These are made fresh to order unlike many of the others that have a stock going cold.
Kurtoskalacs – Chimney Cakes
This Central-European street-food sweet is a nice snack to share with your companions while wandering the streets. Kurtoskalacs (Kur-toesh-ka-latch) is essentially a nice fluffy dough wrapped around a big metal rod cooked rotisserie style over a flame while being lathered in oil. Once cooked it's rolled in sugars flavoured with cinnamon, chocolate, walnuts, vanilla, and more. You can find great tasting, warm ones at stands at major places and metro stations for only 350 forint, but you can also find HUGE ones in other places for proportionally more. You can also find a stand at Deak Ferenc Ter that fills them with all sorts of sugary, artery clogging goodies. Not unique to Hungary as you can find them across Central Europe, but definitely worth your time.
Soup and Sandwich Bars
Sandwiches and soups are a big thing in Budapest, with places ranging from terrible to celestial. Bors Gastrobar is the latter, and is perfect mix of machismo, creativity, and... Darth Vader!? This place is a small, standing sandwich, soup, salad, and pasta joint that is easily one of the greatest street food joints out there. The staff shout "IGEN!" (yes) after each order, and the place is jam packed with Darth Vader paraphernalia. Bors offers gourmet grilled sandwiches (540/780 forint) with ingredients such as toasted pig brain, pickled jalapeno, mangalica sausage, thai curry, raspberry jam, and more. I grabbed one that was invented by Gordon Ramsey, with ginger-saffron sauce, mild gouda, grilled chicken, asparagus, and fresh strawberries. It was a confusing yet delightful mix. The one with sausage and bacon made my head explode.
Big appetite? You can also combo it with one of their constantly rotating savoury or sweet soups, ranging from thai curries, local favourites, to sweet delights. Devour your soup at the counter or outside on a tiny pickup truck while you wait for your sandwich.
Cafeteria style food counters are ridiculously common in Hungary, but many are extremely lacklustre, serving uninspired food with little taste in a dingy environment. Belvarosi Disznotoros is a much more modern, and more delicious alternative. They have a pre-made hot section with various meats like liver and blood sausages, fried cheeses, stews, roasted pork knuckles, and duck legs. The other part of the long counter offers all kinds of salads, marinated meats that they cook on the spot (including grilled goat cheese!), and another bar of self-serve pickled vegetables. On top of that, they have a rotating menu of different dishes on offer. Soups, stews, and desserts that go throughout the day until they run out.
Come with an empty stomach as the portion sizes are massive, and the food is great. Unlike most food counters it's open throughout the day and evening.
Cholent (or solet in Hungarian) is a classic Jewish bean stew slow-cooked overnight on Friday to be eaten during the Sabbath. Confused? Why is a Jewish thing on the list? Because Hungary has a long history of a strong Jewish community, evidenced by the giant old synagogues. Unfortunately, Hungary actually had the largest decrease in population due to the Holocaust, over a million people. But luckily, the traditions carry on.
And why Friday, and what is the Sabbath? Well, in Judaism, Friday evening to Saturday evening is reserved for family time, and you're meant to do no work. This means doing nothing that creates a fire, which includes cooking and anything with an electric circuit. So this bean stew is set to cook before this period, and eaten during it. You can either eat it as it is, or you can eat it with eggs or meats.
The best and most classic place to devour cholent it is Kadar Etkezde on Saturday afternoon. This small, uncomplicated place has giant soda water spritzers, breads, and spicy sauces sitting on each table. Come in, wait for a place to seat and then take the initiative and jump on it. If you're alone, be prepared to share your table with a stranger. There's a range of things on the menu, but start with the cholent and choose your meat. They have everything from egg, pork, turkey, ground goose, and even a big old goose leg. They also push their chicken broth soup with Matzah balls, their raspberry soda, and the Aranygaluska dessert.
"Napi menu"– Daily Lunch deals
Traditionally lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Hungary and its neighbouring nations. This means that restaurants get a lot of patronage for lunch, and they all compete by offering constantly changing two or three course meal deals. These range vastly in quality from ones you find at cheap food counters, all the way to fine dining restaurants. Every place in Budapest has a lunch menu which varies daily. Walk around and see what places offer. It should be 800-1200 for a decent meal. You can get your goulash, paprikas, and more like that. Don't spend 3000 forint at a tourist trap.
Stex offered a decent three-course for 1290 forint. I personally loved Rakoczi Etterem, a local eatery a bit out of the centre. It didn't offer two or three course meals, but it offered a great variety of interesting local dishes at excellent prices. Soups are around 350 forint, pre-made stew/casserole type dishes for 700-1200, and then grilled ones for around 1600. I always went for the pre-made ones for around 800. I really enjoyed the Transylvanian Cabbage Casserole, and the stuffed pig's stomach was phenomenal. The only issue is that the daily menu is in Hungarian, so download Hungarian in Google Translate or ask the waiters to help you out. I would wake up every morning and check out their specials before deciding what I was eating for the day.
I personally don't recommend getting the dessert course unless its a quality place. The food is generally prepared beforehand and then served. This okay for stews, soups, and casseroles, but for desserts like pancakes and doughnuts, you end up with cold, dry, tasteless calorie bombs.
Traditional Hungarian food is chock full of different unconventional meats that you just don't find in a lot of other countries. You can regularly find deer, veal, goose, rabbit, and duck on menus, and can even get horse and bear sausage. Oh, and it's also a haven for organ meats! Gizzard stews, stuffed pork bellies, veal kidney and brain stews, cock (rooster) testicle stuffed pancakes, or even bone marrow on toast!
Hungary is also the world's second largest producer of foie gras, making it extremely available and comparatively cheap You can buy foie gras cans from a meat, cheese, and vegetable market at the Central Market Hall, or find it in all kinds of restaurants. But maybe you aren't into force feeding, and I wouldn't blame you.
Lecso Gyorsetterem is an interesting place that offers cheap food counter meals for lunch, and quality restaurant meals for dinner. It was also a great place to get dishes containing organs and uncommon meats during dinner. Otherwise, Belvarosi Disznotoros had liver and blood sausages all the time, and other interesting meats on its daily menu. Rakoczi also offered a variety of interesting meats on its lunch menu.
Budapest is much, much cheaper than most "Western" nations, particularly the capitals. You can have 3-course meals at gourmet restaurants for 10 euros (~3000 forints), and can even visit some of its michelin star restaurants for 15-20 (~4500-6000). Of course, some of them will charge more like 70 euros for a 7 course lunch, and others still will be 100-200 euros for the same thing at night. In general, however, it's still way cheaper. I ate at Costes Downtown (sister restaurant to Budapest's first Michelin star restaurant), Tanti (Budapest's newest Michelin star restaurant), and MAK bistro (one of the highest rated restaurants in town). The prices ranged from 3500-6900 forints for a 3 course meal.
Well I say three course, but some were more like six. Fancy chips, followed by bread with gourmet butters, then your three courses, and ending with fancy chocolates and candies. And believe me, the quality here isn't less than Western Europe. You'll eat gorgeous, inventive, quality, and delicious meals containing venison, crab, foie gras, caviar, swordfish, and rare cuts of beef. I can't recommend visiting at least one gourmet restaurant while in town.
You really can't go anywhere in Budapest without seeing Peksegs all over the place. These are bakeries containing a smorgasbord of tasty delights. I recommend Kifli (crescent shaped pastry), Pogacsa (flaky, delcious fire-cooked buns), Retes (strudels of varying flavours), Beigli (poppy seed loaf), and whatever else that catches your eye. Hungarians love their bread, and they do it well. I never bought something from a bakery that disappointed me, even at Tesco or Aldi. Wander in and grab something that looks good.
For the Sweet Tooth
Okay so you've had enough salty, heavy food, you want a nice sweet dessert. Well besides the constant presence of gelato on the streets, and the kurtoskalacs, Hungary is a great source for unique and amazing desserts. Somloi Galuska. Gundel Palacsinta (and other pancakes), Dobos Torte, Chestnut Puree, Aranygaluska, and more!
BANK3 near Arany Jaluska utca is an excellent place to get all kinds of delicious, massive crepe-style pancakes. Costes Downtown does a phenomenal Somloi Galuska. Comes out as a stuffed chocolate sphere surrounded with cake dough. The server then pours hot chocolate on the sphere. Watching it melt was a truly spectacle. Oh and it was delicious. Otherwise, wander around and keep the eyes peeled.
Go forth and enjoy
Well that's my varied list of the must-eat things while in Budapest, although I know it's hardly an exhaustive list of all the great culinary delights that Budapest has to offer. If you want different cuisines than the typical Hungarian fare, check out my other article Budapest's Non-Hungarian Must Eats. Otherwise, if you have an absolute go-to place in Budapest, please share it in the comments below. Now get out there and enjoy some of the best!