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Snapshots, Hungary Pun-Free

Even though I spent a good part of Black Friday
pondering new cameras (and ankle boots, area rugs and cat sweaters) and –what do you think of mirrorless?–I've begun to rely on
my camera phone way more than I'd like to admit. Accordingly, here are some
not-all-beautifully-shot photos from my week in Budapest with a jaunt to

Budapest Marketing

Even as taking photos of one's food has become an
easy target for mockery, there seems to be an exception among "real"
photographers and travel writers–I'm not calling anyone out specifically,
though it's commonplace on travel blogs and pops up on Twitter–for food
markets in foreign locales. Huh? Isn't "food markets are the soul of a
city" nearly as much of a trope as "____ is a city of contrasts?"

Great market hall facade

But I wasn't seeking to make art or looking for a
window into the hearts and minds of Hungarians. I only wanted to see what might
be good to eat at Budapest's Great Market Hall, just me and my iPhone camera. Note the Mexican flag on the sign hanging from the entrance–chiles en nogada with their red, white, green, isn't so different than stuffed cabbage highlighted with sour cream, tomato and greenish Hungarian wax peppers, also a nod to a flag with shared colors.

Great market hall doll

Goose cracklings. Goose is big in Hungary; the big
bird's liver is featured in restaurants both high and low, and canned foie gras
was commonplace at market stalls and even at duty free. (November also happens to contain St. Martin's Day, a new-to-me holiday that entails eating goose in multiple courses.) Liba, a.k.a. goose, is one of the only Hungarian words I learned to read.

Great market hall butcher

Even this beefy stall, has cracklings in the lower left and cans of goose liver in the case on the upper right.

Hungarian cracklings

I would've assumed that the piles of fried skin in
plastic tubs in butchers cases were all pork rinds if I hadn't chanced upon this
entry mentioning libatepertő
aren't a lot, or any Hungarian food blogs written in English. looked
promising, but hadn't been updated since last December).

Too many goose cracklings

As has happened more times than I'd like to admit, I
always mix up grams to ounces, and the extra math of converting a foreign
currency, in this case forint, furthers the confusion. I ended up with a pound
of goose cracklings, enough to fill a small pillow–could you imagine
cracklings instead of feathers and down?–when I only wanted a handful to
sample. Yeah, the young man working the counter did give me a funny look when
I asked for half a kilo, but everyone in Budapest shoots nervous-making looks.
Service with a smile is not a thing (not that anyone is particularly unfriendly either).

Thanksgiving snacks

The crackling miracle was that the nubs of
goose-bumped skin and fat, some with bits of dark meat attached, not only
stayed crunchy, but lasted a week at room temperature, stuffed in a plastic shopping bag in the
hotel closet (nowhere near the biggest food crime of frozen horse meat unthawing and bleeding all over the contents of a
minibar fridge in Montreal) and an additional week in a Brooklyn fridge, to be
served at Thanksgiving traditionally with a generous amount of salt, sliced red onion, the
other Hungarian fave (one can only stomach so much raw onion), and
untraditional jalapeños in lieu of the milder yellow-green peppers they
consider spicy and sometimes are. Ignore the pickles on the left, but do take a closer look at the onion plate–it has a face.

Mangalitsa pork, the extra rich and fatty meat from
curly haired pigs, is premium both here and in Hungary, the difference is that
being a native breed there, it's everywhere you look.

Spicy mangalitsa sausage

It's in spicy, super oily sausages, served with no more
than a dollop of sweetish mustard, that can make a normally self-conscious solo diner more self-conscious while chomping at a bench next to the garbage cans where the cleaning women smoke. With paprika as the dominant spice, the pork
sausages bear more than a passing resemblance to chorizo, except that I've
never encountered such large portions for one in Spain.


Lángos is essentially fried pizza (Neapolitan
montanara doesn't own the style) and at its most basic is topped with sour
cream and mild shredded white cheese. There is a menu that none of the staff
appears to adhere to, combo-wise or price-wise; instead, they ask what
ingredients you'd like piled on top from a series of metal containers separated by
glass, Subway-style. That's how I ended up with sausage and more red onions
than I'd bargained for. Even if the price balloons beyond the listed 700
forint, it's inconsequential–that's only $3.20. (If you want to get drunk and
eat cheesy fried dough in NYC you are in luck–there's lángos at Korzo f.k.a. Eurotrip in South Slope.)

Langos with mexican sauce

No one orders the #7.

Great market hall mexican stage

However, there was a Mexico tourism promotion
occurring on my first visit. The performers weren't at their post.

Great market hall mexican food

There were Coronas and tequila, as well as tacos,
sopes and quesadillas being prepared for sale. Only 400 forint a taco.

Sadly, it was a week too early for the big
Christmas market that was setting up what is called Fashion Street, an open-air
mall. Touristy as they may be, they're fun, at least the ones were that I encountered in
Berlin last year, though it may be the glühwein talking. (The Germans are more
hardcore, adding shots of rum or brandy to their mulled wine, as well as still
smoking everywhere indoors and having no rules against drinking in public or on
public transportation.)

Luckily, a smaller collection of stands were open
along the pedestrian arcade behind the city's two major hotels, across from the
Tommy Hilfiger shop. From the fifth floor of the Le Meridien, in a room
overlooking the row, I could hear the muffled voices on the ground each morning.

Kolbasz haz

Of course there was Mangalitsa pork.

Christmas market sausage

And just regular sausages with potatoes. We
accidentally ended up with two massive links (one not fully cooked) when we
only asked for one. I don't expect the world to speak English, so these things
happen (well, not uncooked food).

Szittya buci stove

Szittya buci (translated as Scythian bun) is a sandwich cooked in old-timey wood-fired
stoves. I don't imagine the average Hungarian still uses these. These
anachronisms are all in the fun of the Christmas market. Give them time, and
their youth will rediscover old methods, cooly repackage the experience and
charge double.

Szittya buci duo

Bacon, with lots of sour cream and red onions, of
course. Tomatoes cost extra (hot peppers and cracklings were also available add-ons).

Vitez kurtos cakes

I regret not getting to try the kurtos before this stand
closed (businesses shut down early, at least in the tourist zone–we were
snapped at for trying to walk into a closing bar at 11:40pm) which I initially
mistook for rotisserie pork. It's a hollow cake that gets burnished by fire and
rolled in cinnamon and sugar.

As Political as it Gets Around Here

Barack palinka

Barack=apricot in Hungarian, a fact I quickly
learned through the ingestion of pálinka, a popular fruit brandy. (It took me
longer to figure out that when someone with shaky English tries to describe a
fruit as "like apple but bigger" they mean quince, a.k.a birs.)


Chao Thai Too & Zabb Elee

Chao Thai Too and Zabb Elee are both Queens Isaan
offshoots. Not so long ago, Chao Thai spawned a second larger location in
Elmhurst while last year Zabb Elee made the leap all the way from Jackson Heights
to the East Village. Both are far better than average.

Chao Thai has always been my favorite Sripraphai
alternative (Ayada is in that pantheon too, but I'm less fanatical about them
then others) even though there's that one server who's smarmy about not giving
you the requested spice level. I was hoping he'd remain stationed at the
original, but there he was at the highly staffed Too (though oddly, not taking

Chao thai too fried morning glory salad

The menu is bigger and now formally includes a lot
of the dishes that used to be on hand-written scraps of paper taped around the
room. At the old Chao Thai their take on the crispy watercress/morning glory
salad was always mysteriously unavailable even though always on the wall. Now,
here it is, massive with crisp greens on the right, soft shrimp, squid and mussels
on the left. The coating on the greens here is puffier like a beer batter, the
cashews are crushed instead of whole and the shredded green mango was
unexpected altogether. I like all salads of this ilk, but always compare them
to Sripraphai's, which could be a mess, but is one I encountered first and
always prefer.

Chao thai too trio

Portions are generous, and in this case the crispy
pork dominated the green beans. I think they just gave us all the remaining pork
bits in this rich pad prik khing because it was getting late. The table that
arrived after ours looked at our plate and gave us dirty looks (no hyperbole)
after being told they were out of pork belly.

I'm not convinced this was pad kee mao. I would've
sworn it was pad thai, but it was darker than the pad thai on others' plates
and there weren't any peanuts in it. More sweet than hot and with those skinny
rice noodles, it was the oddball of the evening.

Crunchy fried catfish rounds with Thai apple
eggplant and bamboo shoots, on the other hand, was the biggest hit. Bony and
crazy hot with lots of bitter krachai, it's not as accessible a dish as some of
the others. Whole fish preparations are easier to love, but the catfish hunks
have a snackable quality I enjoy.

In some ways Zabb Elee's existence is more welcome
because Queens is already rife with good Thai and the East Village isn't
(sadly, my new Clinton Hill Thai situation may be even worse than in Carroll
Gardens–and no, Pok Pok isn't in Carroll Gardens [or Red Hook]).

Zabb elee som tum kortmuar

And it's highly unique. The number of papaya salads,
alone, is impressive, and with combinations I've never encountered elsewhere. See
my new entry about som tum kortmuar (green papaya, pork cracklings, Thai sausage,
eggplant, fried fish and noodles) on Real Cheap Eats.

The brightly flavored duck larb included varying textures
of the roughly chopped meat, itself, as well as crispy bits of skin that were
mixed in. They may not initially believe you if you say you want your food hot,
but they will oblige if you insist you can handle a four (out of five). A five
is probably brutal.

Chao Thai Too * 83-47 Dongan Ave., Elmhurst, NY

Zabb Elee * 75 Second Ave., New York, NY

Soul Food Mahanakorn & Nahm

Some say that foreigners can't/shouldn't cook food that's
not their own, though arguments tend to be more specifically about white
guys appropriating Asian culture. (You don't hear so much dissent over
French-trained chefs of all nationalities. And really, about women like Naomi Duguid or Fuschia Dunlop because they are cookbook authors, not chefs, I imagine.) I believe that anyone can learn to
cook anyone's cuisine if immersed extensively (I wouldn't say a few weeks
in Vietnam counts) and just growing up with a cuisine doesn't make you an expert. A corollary might be gastropubs like Smith where Thai chefs have
no problem cooking scotch eggs or haggis.

Where you risk courting the most criticism is when
attempting to cook your non-native cuisine on its home turf. Like Andy Ricker
may get some shit over Pok Pok, but it's not as if he's an American running a
Thai restaurant in Thailand.  Jarrett Wrisley is with
Soul Food Mahanakorn (well documented here) though he manages to sidestep drama
since he's more restaurateur than chef–and it doesn't hurt that the restaurant is pretty likeable.

Kill me, but I'd describe Soul Food Mahanakorn as the Pok
Pok of Bangkok (I'm shocked that Google only turns up two "the Pok Pok of…" hits–neither for Soul Food Mahanakorn) by which I mean that both are casual with decor that nods to Thai pop culture and serve a curated selection of dishes that are nearly
unbastardized, yet appeal to a specific western sensibility. That
translates to snacky small plates of organic, responsibly sourced wings, ribs
and sausages, and cocktails crafted with bitters and egg white cocktails, as
well as Thai aromatics and herbs. Nice.

Soul food mahanakorn lamb grapow

Your typical all-in-one grapow with a runny fried egg, but using
roughly chopped lamb. This was particularly good because the meat had a little wok char.

Soul food mahanakorn fried chicken salad

Who wouldn't order a salad made of fried chicken? This yam
with all the requisite shallots, mint, lime, fish sauce and chiles, reminded me
of a similarly odd dish they used to made at more oddly named VIP@ Thai Cuisine in
Carroll Gardens. The Brooklyn version was served with the meat pulled from the
bone and tossed in and didn't have the green bean and cabbage garnishes. Both have their merits.

Soul food mahanakorn pork belly

Pork belly and kale! This is what I'm talking about when I'm
talking about specific Western sensibilities.  I wanted to see kale in a Thai context, except
that I'm fairly certain the kale mentioned on the menu was not the green that
arrived on my plate. This is Chinese broccoli and crispy pork, right?

* * *

Nahm is a different beast (and technically a chain since
there's an older Michelin-starred London location). This year it became the 50th
best restaurant in the world,
which I know doesn't sound so impressive compared
to Spain's continued dominance of the single digits, but it's a feat for the
only Thailand entry.

The project of Australian chef, cookbook author and Thai
obsessive, David Thompson, Nahm is more of a classic fine-dining draw. I
suspect that the
average patron is not there to experience obscure ingredients or
lost-to-the-ages preparations, they just want to eat at a good looking
restaurant in a stylish hotel.

For instance, the similarly aged, Brooklyn-ish
(yes, kettle black) couple we were seated next to were
unfamiliar with, non-obscure mangosteen and durian, and ordered the latter because they
were charmed by its descriptor as "the king of fruit." Yes, they
learned a lesson (frankly, I don't get the big stink over durian–it's not that
foul) but I don't they were at Nahm to be schooled.

Nahm starters
Expensive for Bangkok, but stellar value by NYC
standards, the 1700 baht ($55) set menu with five courses, each with vast choices (nam prik, soup, salad, curry and
stir-fry/steamed/grilled dish) plus desserts, is really the way
to go. After the amuse and canapes (above: smoked fish, peanut and tapioca dumplings; grilled chicken satay with peanuts and tart chili sauce; coconut cup cakes with red curry of crab;
spicy pork with mint, peanuts and crunchy rice on betel leaves) everything shows up at once,
Thai-style (which took me by surprise the first time I encountered it at Bo.lan, a similarly minded restaurant run by Thompson proteges).

Nahm set menu

The array is
both dazzling and overwhelming with portions that initially seem dainty but nearly
push you over the edge by the time the sweets arrive.

Nahm sweets

If I'm
giving the individual dishes short shrift (I am) it's because I always find
tasting menus daunting to blog about to the point that I just don't anymore
(not without weird OCD regrets–I'm still torn over not taking photos or
blogging about Reinstoff in Berlin, the only upscale meal I ate during last November's vacation). But I'd still like to
convey the style of food served.

Nahm minced prawn and pork simmered in coconut cream

The most memorable dish (with the least illustrative photo) or rather
seemingly incongruous group of dishes (we were trying to think of American
things that would be equally nonsensical together–chicken, waffles and syrup? Cincinnati
chili?) was a nam prik/relish that pushed the limits of sweet, fatty, fiery and
bitter. In front is mess of very spicy prawns and oysters, covered in shallots,
chiles and a floss of some sort. This was accompanied by a small dish of caramelized
nuggets of pork belly and a small deep-fried fish with raw vegetables and herbs
like long batons of almost menthol galangal. The intense flavor of the rhizome
made it very apparent why substituting ginger like Westernized recipes often recommend,
wouldn't work.

This is the kind of recipe that I would read about, want to eat, but wouldn't
even bother to attempt because of the steps involved. Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook (a Christmas present from last year that admire but from afar) has nothing on 688-page Thai Food.

Soul Food Mahanakorn * 56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, Bangkok, Thailand

Nahm * Metropolitan Hotel, 27 S. Sathorn St., Bangkok, Thailand

No Tex-Mex Eggrolls?

"Lunch was catered crew lunch from the Cheesecake Factory. I’m not a fan
of the Cheesecake Factory menu. Like, it’s authored by Tolstoy, it’s so
long. I find it maddening. However, I do think that the food is pretty
good. We had chicken potstickers, shrimp spring rolls, teriyaki and
orange chicken, and red velvet cheesecake."

Questionable humor aside, Mo Rocca's Grub Street Diet raises a very important question–Cheesecake Factory caters?

How Not to Eat a Pork Chop Bun in Macau

Food-wise, Macau is known for egg tarts, jerky,
suckling pig and pork chop buns–at least those are my  associations. On my
previous two visits to the former Portuguese colony Tai Lei Loi Kei's well-known pork chop
bun eluded me because it's one of those classic chowhoundish follies: off the
main tourist drag, super-specific hours, long lines and daily sell-outs. I
never made it over to Taipa Village.

Except that now the tourist-packed enclave abutts the ever-expanding
casino district, Cotai  (a portmanteau of the two neighboring areas: Coloane and Taipa) that barely
existed when I was in Macau in 2008. It
also turned out that hallowed Tai Lei Loi Kei was right across the street (granted,
a major multi-lane thoroughfare) from the sprawling Galaxy complex where I
staying (and wasn't allowed to see the world's largest rooftop wave pool because of post-typhoon storms, not even a peek) an exemplary illustration of the collision of old and new/local
culture and Americanization that I enjoy so much. And yet I still did not get my
Tai Lei Loi Kei bun…

The internet is rife with misleading information (and not
just from trolly hurricane douches). Tai Lei Loi Kei hadn't closed and it
hadn't moved into The Venetian. Accuracy, people.

Venetian tai lei loi kei

Uh, not yet, at least.

Lord stow's venetian macau

There was a Lord Stow's Bakery, however–another example
of a once small local business (selling egg tarts, in this case) getting modern
and mall-y. They also have branches in Japan, Korea and the Philippines.

Venetian macau food court

The casino food court was highly impressive, though,
with the same false summer blue sky and gondola-filled canals as in Las Vegas–just a hell of a lot
bigger overall. Seriously. The biggest in the world with 546,000 square feet vs. Vegas'
measly 120,000.

Exterior mcsorley's ale house macau

Plus, there was a frat-free McSorley's that kind of
blew my American-brands-abroad-loving  mind.

Taipa walkway

So, the morning before heading back to Hong Kong we
took the hotel's free shuttle bus to Taipa Village, which was, yes, just across
the street. They don't make it easy for pedestrians in a lot of modernizing cities,
which is why there was also a shuttle bus to The Venetian, across another
street on the other side. Maybe the oppressive humidity and sudden bursts of
rain also contribute to the aversion to walking? (Keep in mind that 99% of the tourists are Chinese, not the stereotypically lazy, blobby Americans everyone hates.)

San hou lei pork chop sandwich

 Thinking I was shit out of luck on Tai Lei Loi Kei, original
spot shuttered and not yet open in The Venetian, I sought out San Hou Lei (one of
many other pork chop bun purveyors–they're not that scarce) and ended up with
a pork chop sandwich on crustless white bread instead. Language barriers, they are

San hou lei exterior

There were some cute howling cats pacing in the front of the cafe, though (sadly, you can't see them with the window glare).

I want this cat shirt

On the subject of cats, a souvenir-shopper down the street had a shirt that I wanted.

Cat in a monkey shirt

Not to be confused with a cat in a shirt I
encountered in Bangkok a few days later. But this is about Macau.

Pork chop bun stand

There was a curry pork chop bun stall along the main
shopping arcade with a name I couldn't read because it was only in Chinese.

Curry pork chop bun

The sandwiches couldn't be more simple: a thin grilled
pork chop, this version sprinkled with curry powder, on a Portuguese roll. I add chile oil to mine. Unlike the McRib, there are actually bones in the cutlet.

Kafelaku coffee

Next door was a cafe selling civet poop coffee. I
couldn't taste anything radical in this expensive $6 cup, but when presented
with the opportunity to try kopi luwak you must partake.

Kopi luwak beans

A container of beans cost the equivalent of $168. Pre-digested coffee does not come cheap.

After dawdling and trying two unintended pork
chops between bread, we realized we needed to get back to the hotel to catch a
shuttle to the ferry to make it to Hong Kong by 8pm (yes, pork chop buns are what caused me to miss my original reservation at The Chairman) and in the rush back
guess what we found, merely a block from the crosswalk (the only such
concession to walkers on the entire busy road) leading straight to The Galaxy? I would've gone on day 1 if knew it was so close (Google Maps couldn't find it).

Tai lei loi kei

Tai Lei Loi Kei, totally open, and well before 3pm,
the much publicized time when buns supposedly become available.  Internet, you lie. Partially out of fullness
and a little out of spite and heat exhaustion, I didn't even bother buying one. At this point I was
over Tai Lei Loi Kei.  I will never speak of Macanese pork chop buns again after this post.

Tai lei loi kei moving to venetian

a sign advertising a branch in The Venetian.