Monday, August 31, 2009

Meet Your New Hungarian Family

I remember my Uncle Jerry once saying something along the lines of, "you can't eat ambiance". And of course, he was right. We've all fallen into that trap once or twice. You'll be walking down the street in a city, perusing the menus posted on the outside of the restaurants and your eyes get the better of your stomach...and mind for that matter. You find yourself choosing between a small, quaint looking restaurant with hand-written specials on a chalk board and that money pit of a restaurant with modern decor, high ceilings and a bitchy hostess. Unfortunately sometimes we choose the latter and are always sorry we did. The lesson to be learned from this is that looks can be deceiving and that my uncle was can't eat ambiance. Case in point...restaurants in strip malls.

Growing up in New Jersey, I've eaten in my fair share of strip mall restaurants. My favorite bagel shop of all time was in a small, grungy strip mall in a not-so-good part of town. The best pizza in New Jersey, and perhaps in North America, came out of a row house in Trenton...without a bathroom (De Lorenzo's on Hudson Street in Trenton). Yes. You heard me correctly. There was no bathroom (don't ask me how they got away with it...but I tell you no lie). I've learned that good things come in unassuming packages. I recently had the pleasure of eating in such a restaurant this weekend while visiting my parents in Ewing, NJ.

My parents took my husband and I out for an early anniversary dinner (we'll be married two years this Sept. 8th!). They had been raving about this mom and pop Hungarian restaurant, called Barbara's Hungarian Food, for months so we were happy when they suggested dinner there. Now, I haven't lived in NJ for 6 or 7 years and I'm always surprised at how many things can change in that amount of time, but then again I'm always surprised at how many things stay the same. We pulled into a strip mall that was very familiar to me and it made me smile. We walked into Barbara's Hungarian Food restaurant and it made me grin some more. Both Barbara and her husband immediately greeted us at the door with big smiles and a warm welcome. We were the only ones there when we arrived for an early Sunday dinner around 5:45 but by 6:15 the place was almost full.

The menu was simple and concise, and in my opinion, the simpler the better. I want to eat at a restaurant where the chef lists only what he or she loves and loves to cook and this seemed to be no exception. There were no appetizers on the menu, just soups...Hungarian gulyas, cauliflower soup, pea soup, chicken noodle. All were around $3. Then came the entrees...pork with sauerkraut, stuffed pepper, stuffed cabbage, 4 kinds of stew (if it were about 10 degrees colder that day I would have tried the stews...they sounded wonderful) and some breaded pork and chicken cutlets. All were around $10. $10!! What a deal! My husband asked about the pork with sauerkraut and instead of trying to go through a long description Barbara simply brought us a small tasting. Nice huh? I liked what I tasted and ordered it, my mother ordered the stuffed cabbage (my second choice) and my husband and father ordered breaded pork cutlet and chicken respectively. We also ordered some cucumber salad and a very large side of spaetzle (I love the stuff) to share with the table (again, each one only $3...and that spaetzle could have been an entree itself). I stopped short of ordering the noddles with cottage cheese as I didn't want to order the ENTIRE menu in one trip but it was hard to stop.

While we waited for our meal I watched as Barbara worked her magic in the kitchen. Like so many other restaurants these days it was an open kitchen so you could see her work. Unlike so many restaurants these days the kitchen made me feel as though I was sitting in my grandmother's house, waiting for some soul soothing, home cooked comfort food. It was nice. It was relaxing. It was great to sit there and feel as though you were in a house surrounded by family and not in a stuffy, cold restaurant.

The food arrived and it was good. Pure and simple. Oh, and generous...can't forget generous. My pork and sauerkraut was just that. Pork braised with sauerkraut, paprika and pork juices, garnished with parsley and sour cream. It was delicious and even though I'm sure there weren't more than a few ingredients in it, it didn't need any more. Simple food done right can stand on it's own. My mother's dish was a bit more complex. 3 mammoth stuffed cabbage rounds sat on her plate. I tasted them and immediately thought to compare them to my grandmother's stuffed cabbage. My grandmother (on my mother's side) is Polish through and through so I can't even attempt to eat something like stuffed cabbage or peppers and NOT compare it to her cooking. My mom noticed a difference right off the bat. The paprika. A staple in most of the dishes we ate that night, paprika, really did give everything the most wonderful kick...not to mention color. The next time I make stuffed cabbage I'm going to be sure to add some paprika...delicious. The breaded pork and chicken looked beautiful (you could hear Barbara in the back banging the cutlets thin just minutes before so they couldn't have been any fresher). I, unfortunately, didn't grab a taste of either dish as the men were quick to inhale their meals. That can only mean a thumbs up in my book. The hubby did say his was crisp and tender. Perfectly cooked. The sides went quickly as well. The cucumber salad offered a nice, refreshing break from the richness of the food and the spaetzle, covered in butter, brought that richness right back. Truth be told I think I probably ate most of the plate myself. It looked as spaetzle should...homemade. And it tasted as spaetzle should...tender and buttery. No complaints from me. I would have eaten the whole plate had Barbara not brought out an apple strudel as a little sweet treat and an anniversary congrats. It too was wonderful. A flaky dough wrapped around more of an apple-sauce type filling as opposed to a whole apple filling. It was the perfect end to the meal.

So when all was said and done I left the restaurant feeling as though I had made new friends...Hungarian friends who smile a lot, really know how to cook, and who like to feed me. Who wouldn't like friends like that!?

I highly recommend giving Barbara's Hungarian Food a try. In a region that is filled (to the brim) with the same old Italian restaurants, this home-style Hungarian eatery is a breath of fresh air...and a diamond in the stripmall-rough.

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