Hanging Out in Rockford: Old times, new times—part four

Good food is where you find it

On Saturday night before we go to the trendy place (Soul Café) for dinner, Dori and Drew are still getting ready. I want to have a glass of wine so I tell them that I will wait in the little bar across the street. I enter the Royal Crown Café Bar and order a glass of Bull’s Blood, the best-selling red wine in Hungary. It’s a light red wine with a very dry finish. The gentleman who appears to be running the place greets me, and though he speaks no English, he is very accommodating and turns on the BBC for me. After reading the menu, I ask for some pickles or sour stuff as described on the menu. Sour stuff turns out to be pickled vegetables that I fall in love with and have adopted as a new favorite.

I am trying to tell him how much I like the pickles when he goes to the kitchen and calls out a very comely looking young woman. She speaks English, and she sits down to explain the pickle thing to me. About that time, Dori and Drew arrive. When they see me with the attractive young woman, they both get sly smiles on their face as if somehow in 15 minutes in a Hungarian restaurant I have scored. Well, Budapest is like that, but not in this case. Then it is time for us to go, and the communication is lost.

We eat at the Soul Café. I cry, etc, as I describe in the last article, and then we do some bar hopping. At a bar where Drew used to hang out, I meet a girl he used to date when she was only 17 (shame on you, my son). Also a big guy named Steve who seems very aggressive but is tamed down some now since he had a child, and an Irish guy named Jack, who is a sea captain and has a flat in Budapest.

Then we are all drinking Unicum, the national drink of Hungary (a very dangerous thing to do), and the sea captain is telling stories. Jack says that once you drink Unicum, you have to go home, and I step aside, look at Dori and mouth the words, “let’s go home.” Dori leans over to Drew, whispers in his ear, and that’s it; we are on our way home.

The next day we are to have dinner at Doris’ parents, but before we go to their house, we walk up to the Castle area that overlooks Budapest. On one side, we walk along a wall that has a view of Buda. On the other side, we see the Danube and Pest. Drew brings along his video camera and takes pictures of both Dori and me. Then we take the street tram to the suburb where her parents live, one of the massive developments that the Communists erected during the rule of the Soviet Union. As we walk up to it, Drew shoots a picture and says,” There it is, the workers’ paradise.” Atop this workers’ paradise now sits, among other things, a billboard advertising Coca-Cola. A triumph of capitalism over communism.

We walk along a street where the first floor is all shops and the upper floors are all apartments, until we get to the storefront where her parents have a dress shop. Then we enter the building and climb the stairs to the first floor, where they have their apartment, where we are greeted at the door by Tapsi (Top-She), their ultra active 13-year-old poodle. Inside, the apartment is very comfortable, and I get to meet my son’s future in-laws for the first time, Istvan (Steve) and Judit (Judy) Szomola. Tapsi does a series of complicated pirouettes. Steve immediately breaks out some homemade pear brandy. It is kind of like grappa and very popular in Hungary. There isn’t too much of that left, so we switch to Unicum. Steve says we have to drink a lot because the food (duck) will be greasy. Oh, well, any excuse is a good one, right? And then, of course, we have to have beer, good Czech beer.

In the meantime, Judy has been very busy in the kitchen. We start with some good black bread to which she has applied a liberal amount of duck fat. On top of this is some thinly sliced duck liver (cooked medium rare). Atop all of this is an assortment of onions, vegetables and peppers (paprika), and a fine hot pepper resembling cayenne (also called paprika). Absolutely delicious, I have three, maybe four helpings. Judy seems delighted. Then we have a veal soup that is perhaps one of the best things I have had in my life. It is Drew’s favorite, and Judy has made it for that reason. It is a veal base, and there are chunks of veal. In addition, there is (of course) paprika, potatoes, onion, and sour cream. By now, I have gained the utmost respect for Judy as a cook, but more is to come.

The next course is roast duck. They have purchased extra duck legs, and Steve makes a joke about it being a Communist duck because it has four legs. With this is served a sour red cabbage dish that has garlic and onion, some absolutely divine potatoes, and finally they try to kill me off with a homemade chocolate cream cake.

After dinner, we sit around the table and talk. Judy shows me some of her cookbooks. Steve is itchy and says that we should take Tapsi for a walk, so he, I and Drew pile in the car and drive to a beautiful park along the Danube. Tapsi runs in the woods and we walk along the Danube and look at an abandoned chemical plant that is a favorite of Drew’s.

Then it’s back in the car to drive to a recreation area where they rent boats and there are a number of bars (a place where Steve likes to hang out). I fall asleep along the way but wake up when we get there. We find only one remaining bar open. Steve and Drew stand in the cold night air chatting in Magyar. I am kind of the outsider. Steve keeps buying us shots of pear brandy. Finally, I wake up and start buying shots too. Tapsi is having a ball exploring, the riverbank.

Then its back to Steve’s flat. Drew drives because he doesn’t have a Hungarian license, so the wisdom is that if we are stopped, he has no license to lose. We arrive home safely and after our good-byes, we take the public transportation back to the apartment. The following morning (Monday) I have lunch at the little Royal Crown restaurant across from the apartment. More to come.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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