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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Hungarian Touch : Goulash in Burbank has some knockout dishes and defies the notion that the cuisine is heavy.

February 05, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The hearty cooking of Hungary evolved on the dusty, often inhospitably cold plains of central Europe. Now we have a Hungarian restaurant right here on the dusty plains of Burbank.

Goulash is located in a middle-sized shopping mall shorn of natural scenery, and the restaurant isn't very long on atmosphere itself. Not that they haven't tried to make it charming. You get to sit in a specially constructed all-wood seating area the Hungarians call a pagoda , the booths are pure wood and the glass on your tabletop protects some authentic Hungarian embroidery. But, personally, I couldn't get my mind off the blue-green vinyl upholstery in the seating area that's not being used, or stop wondering how the cheeseburgers tasted when this place was a humble coffee shop.

The proprietor, a fellow named Jeno, moved his business here from the summit of Barham Boulevard, where he used to run Hilltop Hungarian Restaurant. Perhaps significantly, its old location became a Thai restaurant.

OK, so Hungarian food is a hard sell in this climate. It really shouldn't be, though, when it's as well-prepared as here. Several dishes at Goulash are real knockouts. Credit a woman named Mrs. Veres--a chef with a light (for Hungarian cuisine), homey touch.

The best nights to come here are undoubtedly Fridays and Saturdays. That's the night you dine to the strains of live Gypsy music, provided by a duo on violin and cimbalom , a dulcimer-like instrument played with hammer-headed sticks.

I don't know about you, but I require tunes like "Jealousy Tango" and "Humoresque" while I'm digging into a heavily breaded pork chop. I don't digest it all that well unless my blood gets going.

One dish I'd tackle any time, though, is Mrs. Veres' goulash soup. (The owner must agree--he did, after all, name the restaurant after it.) This is a light soup filled with chunks of beef, potato and carrot, and the only thing imposing about it is the portion size.

The soup comes in a bogracs , the iron pot a proper goulash is traditionally cooked in (this one hangs from a cutesy stand, and consequently swings like crazy every time you ladle some into your bowl). The broth is full of paprika and beefy stock, but the finish is as smooth as silk. Have the soup as an appetizer and it easily stretches to serve three.

The only appetizer listed as such on the restaurant's truncated menu, the stuffed cabbage roll, is actually the best thing to eat here--and virtually a complete meal for $4. This is home-style Hungarian cooking at its best: lightly rolled cabbage with a meat-and-rice stuffing and a heady paprika sauce, flanked by a heap of the best sauerkraut you'll ever eat in your life. The sauerkraut isn't pale gray, like what you get in a bad German restaurant, but burnt orange, the color a Renaissance master would use to shadow a canvas. Mix it all up with the accompanying sour cream at your peril.

On that subject, let's give the chef some credit for recognizing modern dietary ideas (and our California climate), because she's substituted vegetable oil in all these dishes for the lard her grandmother probably used. That's how a dish like chicken paprika can come out almost light. It's a classic dish, which deserves classic respect: cutup chicken sauteed in a ruddy paprika sauce and accompanied by little flour dumplings.

Many of the other entrees are heavily breaded cuts of pork, veal or beef. You can put them, and much more, together when you order the wooden platter ( fatanyeros , to be Hungarian about it), which is served for two. Don't blame the staff if your "wooden" platter turns up as a metal serving dish. Some charm may be lost, but the health inspectors probably stay happier this way.

The wooden platter is loaded with delicious bacony- and oniony-tasting fried potatoes, red cabbage, pickles, a huge, paprika-laden sausage ( kolbasz ) and the breaded meats, piled up halfway to the ceiling on a giant skewer. Cut all this heaviness with a sweet-sour side salad of fresh cucumber (you'll need to).

Don't expect much respite at dessert. I hear Mrs. Veres makes a mean apple strudel, but the restaurant always seems out of it.

I've consoled myself with two types of palacsinta (crepes), one filled with apricot jam, the other with a walnut filling and a dark chocolate sauce finished by flaming in rum--this version takes its name from the famous Budapest restaurant Gundel. Both are terrific, and neither rate to end up on a patio table next to a palm tree anytime soon.

Where and When Location: Goulash, 3415 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Suggested dishes: stuffed cabbage roll, $4; goulash soup, $7; chicken paprika, $8.50; Gundel palacsinta , $3. Hours: Lunch Monday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner Monday-Sunday 4-11 p.m. Price: Dinner for two, $25-$35. Full bar. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Call: (818) 845-8724.

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