There is a rich tradition of after-hours kebabs in the city of Budapest. Between 3 and 7 a.m. you’ll find pockets of youth huddled around a gyros stand, clutching a steamy meat-filled pita in their palms as if it were the Baby Jesus, putting on pause all chatter about what went on that night – which DJ sucked, who kissed who, etc – to enjoy a moment of silent salivating and chewing. Folks tend to be very particular about which stand is best and which is best avoided. Many Hungarians will go so far as to swear that the stuff is actually better in Budapest than in Turkey. Having recently traveled to Istanbul and indulged in several torpedos of chicken, lamb and beef I have to say I agree, though I also accept my choice may be biased. Döner wraps in Budapest tend to be wetter both in that the meat is incredibly moist and the duo of sauces is applied more generously. The result is a messier, more sinful bite meant not only to appease hunger but to comfort and release the eater from all stress or worry.
My personal favorite late-night bite in Budapest is the chicken döner at Szeráj, a cheap-eats Turkish joint I’ve visited on countless nights out. It’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is centrally located on Szent Istvan Boulevard across from the Vígszínház (Comedy Theater). Their gyros is tremendous, and with such tremendous gyros it’s hard to imagine the place even needs to offer anything else to turn profit. But they do. A whole bunch of stuff. The few times I’ve actually entered the place I’ve seen a long buffet bar of really awesome and vibrant looking Turkish food. Customers can assemble their own platter by combining the dozens of choices: stuffed peppers and eggplant, salads of all colors and compositions, rice and meat in aromatic sauces… I’ve personally never ventured past the döner counter, but one day I will try the rest.
At Szeráj it’s all about the chicken döner. A sweaty Turkish man shaves the meat valiantly off the monstrous rod of flesh rotating and dripping fat down a spit. He asks what you want in it, you say “everything”, and he begins assembling another little masterpiece. A fluffy sheet of pita gets juicy and crunchy, slightly smoky chicken, fresh lettuce, onions, red cabbage, tomatoes, yoghurt sauce and spicy paprika sauce. In one deft twist it’s formed into its signature tube shape, with the open side smiling seductively up at ya, promising a sloppy and delicious after-hours kiss. The flavors of this thing are by no means mild. Red hot paprika sauce harmonizes beautifully with tangy, fresh yogurt and both add tons of taste to the smoke-licked flesh of the chicken. The cool veg provides the perfect crunch and freshness, but does not form a bushy garden of green to pick through in search for chicken. No, in the case of this döner the ratio is perfect; there’s tons of meat in there too. Each bite makes you hungry for the next until you reach the base, where the excess sauce, onion and meat collect into a wonderfully soggy final mouthful.
The perfect sponge for alcohol, the perfect fuel for the journey home, a chicken döner at Szeráj is the best nightcap for any party in Budapest.