Walking east along Rakoczi Utca away from Urania Train Station it takes a few minutes but you finally reach a small stretch of Budapest that’s still a mite rough and tumble.
The old days of District 8 are seemingly long gone as the pimps, hustlers and street toughs have migrated to Lord knows where; but as you approach Csülök Csárda there’s a strip club or two, and some guys who just sort of melt into the shadows as you approach. A young couple are duking it out in the doorway of a laundry mat, and loud music is blaring out of at least one apartment.
It’s rather nice.
I love cellar restaurants. The Pork Knuckle Inn feels ancient with all wooden fixtures and a bar area that’s in a state of disarray as though a hermit lives behind it. Books are stacked up, fading photos are tacked up and big steer horns hold watch over the whole affair. If you were fortunate enough to have a crazy Hungarian uncle obsessed with pig knuckles this is where he would hang his hat at the end of a long day.
I make my way into a somewhat deserted subterranean dining room that appears to be a minimum of 250 years old. Polished wooden booths with yellowed light bulbs cast dimly about as the aroma of frying food fills the air. I half expect to see Ernest Hemingway tucking into a big plate of pork with a glass of rum at the ready.
The menu is an ode to the common hog and reads like a farm boys dream with all the pork knuckle you could ever dream of including: “Transilvanian knuckle with sour cabbage”, “boiled smoked knuckle of ham with onion and horseradish”, “breaded cutlet with brain stuffed” and my personal option: “knuckle of ham Pekne-style” [bacon, browned onion, fried potato cubes].
My server Oskar, a giant he-bear of a man appears with a huge, unbidden flagon of beer which I gratefully accept. He takes my order and I rear back to soak in the scene.
A couple a table over are putting on quite the display. Perhaps she’s been overwhelmed by the profundity of the pork as she alternates between weeping gently into her wine glass and then exultantly cackling over who knows what.
My wait is short as Oskar soon returns with a platter of food that would make Andre the Giant blush. Several pounds of food are straddling the plate: Potatoes fried in pork fat, Onions fried in pork fat, bacon fried in pork fat and of course pork fried in pork fat. I know that I’ll be in trouble if I lose my momentum so I start eating as quickly as possible.
This is old world country cooking done in the Hungarian style. It takes me back to the Baptist church suppers of my youth. It’s spectacular. Simple, delicious country cooking. Zero frippery, seasoned with little more than salt, pepper and the lard of a well tended hog or two.
The fat on the knuckles is crispy on the outside giving way to a velvety inner that is endlessly pleasing. I push through to the other side and actually manage to polish off my plate except for a little circle of cucumber that served as a garnish.
Oscar approaches and does little to hide his surprise. He gestures towards the cucumber and I rub my belly “no really I couldn’t”. We both have a good laugh. I’ve won the approval of this giant Hungarian bear of a man and that’s really important to me for some reason.
As I leave I walk past the 24/7 bar next door to Csülök Csárda. A buxom Hungarian girl is sitting on a bench taking in some night air. “Sex?” she inquires as I stroll by. This really tells the tale of the fortitude of the Pork Knuckle Inn’s cuisine. I don’t even pause at the hooker’s inquiry. I’m full to the brim and the prospect of sex with a busty Hungarian prostitute doesn’t even slow me down.
I disappear into the night, walking deeper into Joseph’s town on the trail of a quiet bar, a couple rounds of palinka and the comforts of my pied-à-terre.
Berzsenyi utca 4
Mon-Fri Noon -11pm