Our upcoming nuptials pulled the beau and me this summer to the shores of Balaton Lake in Hungary. We rented a car in Budapest and drove first to Siófok, on the southern side, where we spent an afternoon relaxing poolside at our hotel and getting in the mood for a 10-day vacation ahead. After a night out in Siófok, drinking one million rums-and-coke each and dancing to nostalgic classics like Coco Jambo by Mr. President under the bright neon lights of a disco ball at one of the countless clubs on the endless nightlife strip that has earned Siófok a certain reputation, we were craving something substantial for lunch. The late-night gyros, dripping with yogurt and spicy sauce, could only sustain us for so long.
We hopped in the car and drove to Balatonszéplak, which I still consider my own little piece of the Balaton, and where my maternal grandfather’s family had had a vacation house when I was growing up. During the summer I could most often be found hunting for lizards in the ditches alongside the road or playing badminton against whoever had the energy to keep up with me. Eventually the family sold the property and a totally new house was built on the site. But the fence has strangely not been replaced, and I recognized it, walking by. My grandfather’s patient, gentle soul and the memories of him sitting on a white chair in the garden, his legs crossed and his hands on his knee, still linger heavily around this place. It was a very strange feeling to walk down our old street with my fiance, to take the road from there to the lake which I had so many times taken with my grandparents, so long ago. It was strange to pass the ice cream parlor to which we’d ride our bikes, back when I could still do that… Super weird to rent a vizibicikli (paddle boat) and spend an hour paddling, sliding and swimming, completely carefree. It was weird to see how much has changed, even weirder to see how much hasn’t. A good weird, for the most part.
For lunch we stopped at Zöldfa on the border of Balatonszéplak and Siófok. This is a simple, traditional spot, one of those once-few restaurants catering to the rare occasions in which Hungarian vacationers do not cook at home or just get a round of lángos for the whole family. I imagine it was once the place to treat the family on special occasions, like summer birthdays or end-of-the-holidays lunches. But now it’s cheap enough for tourists on any day of the summer. It’s the kind of place where half of the guests still have their bathing suits on, while the other half are showered and dressed. Nevertheless everyone seems touched by the sun, everyone smells like lake-silt and everyone is happy to satisfy ravenous lakeside appetites. We arrived quite starved, ordering two frosty pints of Soproni beer and a big bowl of halászlé (of which I unfortunately, lost the photos when my phone died a few weeks ago). Halászlé is a local speciality, a paprika-laden fish soup made with catfish or carp. This version was as good as ever, with plenty of “halbelsőség” (fish offal) mixed in, giving it a creamy, thick consistency.
A truly emblematic and nostalgic Balaton vacation treat is “hekk,” beloved by older generations and often shunned or ordered only out of irony by those under 40. It’s basically one monstrous frozen hake, battered up and deep-fried, then served whole. The fact that locals prefer to order an imported salt-water fish at restaurants just a few meters away from Central Europe’s largest lake is sketchy in many ways. But it’s also tradition. And anyway, it’s delicious.
This one was quite nice, with a golden-brown coat that stayed crunchy almost the entire way around the fish. The meat itself was quite tender, not overcooked at all, but cooked enough to not have to worry about anything. Importantly, it paired perfectly with beer and was super substantial, especially considering the price. Good stuff.
Ben got a kind of stuffed, breaded and fried pork dish, which came oozing with cheese. Nothing fancy here. This is just one of those dishes that, when correctly executed and eaten with plenty of hunger can be immensely satisfying. The meat was perfectly cooked (which is to say, not overcooked) and the bread crumb crust was exactly as I like it. Battered and fried meat is one of those dishes so intimately tied to ones culture, since the combination of flour, egg, breadcrumb and frying medium is so distinctive to each cuisine. In Hungary, the crust of a “rántott” meat is typically quite dry, grainy and very crunch in texture.
To go with our proteins, we also shared an “uborkasaláta” (or “ubisali” if you want to be cute about it). This is a refreshing “salad” of thinly sliced cucumber marinated in a vinegar and sugar mixture. A must-have side dish, especially in the summer.
A very satisfying first real meal lakeside at the Balaton.