The word menza means “cafeteria” in Hungarian and is often associated with institutional eateries of Hungary’s Socialist Era. During this time food options were limited to simple and substantial dishes such as vegetable főzelék served with fried meat, always preceded by some sort of watery soup. Flavors weren’t particularly interesting but they were ones that a hardworking comrade could easily learn to love when they signified sustenance and a little break from the job. Eventually these dishes became Hungary’s comfort food. Even now, when there’s all sorts of capitalist junk around (BK, McD, sushi?), people crave these dishes and nag their respective grandmas to make them. I know I do.
A few restaurants in Hungary have recently jumped on the retro-wagon and started bringing it all back. How I feel about this trend depends on what exactly that “it” is. In the case of the retro-burger (don’t ask!) I’m not a fan. But when it comes to those ever-humble comfort foods coming back in gourmet disguise, it’s a trend that amuses and entertains me. Menza restaurant in Budapest is the perfect example. The menu is imaginative and fun, reinventing the somewhat hum-drum Hungarian classics as more formal dishes, elegantly plated. At the same time the food retains an innocent humility and is served in hearty portions. The idea is a bit similar to the one behind the identically named Cafeteria restaurant in New York and Boston, though in bringing back Hungary’s history there’s perhaps a bit more to work with.
A cleverly reimagined and classed-up snack is the miniature lángos served with cream o’ garlic soup. Lángos is Hungary’s fried dough, a very popular summertime treat that I have consumed my fair share of both at markets in Budapest and lakeside at the Balaton. It’s a fluffy, doughy thing that gets beautifully golden brown and crunchy at narrower edges. The surface is traditionally brushed with garlic water or garlic oil, and topped with sour cream and shredded Edam cheese. Tearing into a steaming hot lángos on a sunny day is quite sentimental; the simple snack has earned major comfort food status throughout the years. As it is exclusively a snack and never part of a meal, lángos appears on the appetizer list at Menza’s menu ironically. Taking the place of the garlic oil rub is a garlic soup with which the lángos is meant to be eaten, into which it is meant to be dipped. Both are great individually and combined. The dough is pleasantly fluffy with a crispy coat; the sour cream and cheese melt readily against the steamy hot surface. It’s not particularly greasy, but perhaps a bit too large for what I would call an appetizer, especially at a restaurant where entrees are hearty and come in Big Poppa portions. The creamy soup on the side has a potent roasted garlic flavor and goes down quite easy, too easy considering that there is also maybe too much of it in the bowl. I enjoyed this dish but did not enjoy wasting half of it, which I had to do to save room for the next course. To fully become a proper appetizer this dish needs to shrink even more and become a real mini.
The space I saved I ended up needing for the hearty marhapörkölt I chose as my entrée. For me this is another strange dish to order at a restaurant, as it is usually reserved for Sunday meals at my grandparents’ house or any old day at my mother’s.
Quick side note about a thing that seems to confuse foreigners in Hungary: A pörkölt is a Hungarian stew made with some sort of boneless meat, onion and paprika powder. It’s not a gulyás in that a gulyás is made from bone-in meat, is more of a soup than a stew in texture and is seasoned with caraway. It’s also not a paprikás in that the meat is not prepared with a roux and no sour cream is involved, as is the case with the latter. The sauce of a pörkölt is somewhere between a gulyás and a paprikás in texture. Historically, both the pörkölt and the paprikás derive from gulyás and these three variants constitute the national dish of Hungary.
At Menza I had the marhapörkölt, which is made with lean beef shank diced into bite-sized cubes. The meat is cooked perfectly. The tender beef is a pleasure to chew, simultaneously soft and hearty. Coating it ia a beautiful, bright red paprika sauce, which in this case is very well balanced in flavors, though maybe a bit heavy on the red wine. It has a velvety smooth texture and is thin enough to be soaked up by the nokedli (egg dumplings) on the side. The latter are largely flavorless but they’re meant to be, really. They humbly serve their purpose of sucking up all the extra paprika-beef jus and projecting the sauce’s flavor on a chewy canvas.
While a paprikás is fine on its own, a pörkölt needs a pickle to accompany it. A pickle adds a touch of zingy acidity with which to wake up the palate after it’s fallen into a trance from the sleepy flavors of the meat. My favorite savanyúság (pickle) is also the simplest: a good old cucumber salad, with thinly mandolin-ed slices lightly touched with vinegar and a bit of sugar to balance the acidity. Menza gets the vinegar/sugar just right and tops the salad with the obligatory dollop of sour cream and paprika. My only negative critique: it could’ve been a tiny bit colder, as cucumber pickle is best frosty cool on a hot summer day.
Menza is a bit gimmicky but it’s not pretending not to be. It’s gotten a lot of hype and, in my opinion, rightly so. Service is unnaturally charming and friendly for Budapest, the menu makes me giggle a carefree and lighthearted giggle. As long as I don’t see a retro-burger special at happy hour I’ll stay a regular.