It sometimes happens that after examining the menu in yet another modest, ethnic restaurant, I am moved to ask, every bit as plaintively as Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?"
The latest restaurant to give rise to this question is the new Cafe Budapest in the Bird Rock district of La Jolla.
Like so many ethnic eateries, this one seems interested in offering only those dishes that have been introduced by forerunners and have been found acceptable by the vast American restaurant-going public. In other words, anyone who has ever visited an American-Hungarian restaurant and developed a taste for beef goulash, stuffed cabbage, chicken \o7 paprikash \f7 and fried breaded meats will find all of these dishes waiting at Cafe Budapest. But the diner will find little else, and that is a shame, because the Hungarian culinary repertoire certainly is not limited to four or five dishes.
The story is repeated from cuisine to cuisine, with such happy exceptions, these days, as French, Italian and Chinese restaurants. But Greek restaurant menus slavishly imitate one another, as do German, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian lists. The tendency probably is for restaurateurs to promote festival-type dishes, but it would be interesting to be introduced to other, everyday sorts of preparations. If Americans were to open restaurants abroad (other than the fast-food joints that already have proliferated around the globe), they surely would offer more than meat loaf and roast turkey.
In any case, as long as one is content with goulash, stuffed cabbage et al, it is quite easy to be content with the cooking at Cafe Budapest. This small and very modest cafe, by the way, is an offshoot of the equally small and unpretentious Cafe Budapest in Del Mar, which has been in business for about six years; young relations of the Del Mar restaurateurs operate the La Jolla establishment.
This is a restaurant of remarkably little choice; appetizers do not exist, unless one expands upon the soup-or-salad offered with each entree by ordering both. Bread is not served, nor do plates include vegetables, two omissions that run against the grain of San Diego restaurant tradition. Thus the meal is limited to soup or salad, meat with rice or potatoes, and, if desired, a stuffed crepe as dessert. By way of compensation, almost everything is prepared on the premises from fresh ingredients. Other than commercial salad dressings, canned and frozen products do not seem to have found their way into this kitchen.
The house salads are simple but pretty creations of fine, crisp greens garnished with tomato wedges and a small mound of pickled red cabbage. Any guest who feels the need to include greenstuffs in every meal should indeed order salad, because it is about the only chance of meeting this requirement. Pickled cucumbers and a meat salad are offered as \o7 a la carte \f7 alternatives.
The soup, otherwise, makes an excellent choice. Goulash soup, red with--and redolent of--paprika, is a hearty, stewlike concoction packed with beef, potatoes and carrots. It is entirely typical of Hungarian cooking, and as long as one has not chosen goulash as the entree, it makes a fine starter. Other soups appear by the day, and the chicken soup, innocent of meat but displaying a burnished, golden color and an appreciable depth of flavor, speaks of old-fashioned goodness and of the quality that was taken for granted in the days before the advent of canned soups and broths.
It seems likely that the chicken pieces in the chicken \o7 paprikash \f7 lend some of their virtues to the above-mentioned soup, since their falling-from-the-bone tenderness indicates long, slow, gentle simmering. The meat somehow remains moist, though, and is especially succulent in its sour cream-thickened sauce of sauteed, chopped onion and tomato. Paprika, the spice \o7 par excellence \f7 of Hungarian cooking (and indeed its most ubiquitous seasoning, after salt) gives the sauce a pleasant pinkish tinge and a perky but not too dramatic flavor. The traditional garnish of small dumplings made from egg noodle dough, similar to Swiss \o7 spaetzle\f7 , appears in quantity. The dumplings exist to soak up the creamy sauce, and they do so admirably.
The Beef Goulash
A much greater dosage of paprika lends an almost violent red shade, and a relatively hot flavor, to the beef goulash, a simple affair of meat stewed with onion. Cafe Budapest makes a perfectly acceptable version, but others have done better, and beef goulash is but one entry on the lengthy list in the Hungarian goulash catalogue. Almost any combination of meats, often with potatoes, tomatoes, etc., can be stewed slowly with onions and paprika until it achieves a kind of transcendental goulash state; sour cream frequently is stirred in as a savory and spice-taming addition.