'Yes! Spared!" says Hank.
All the way up 78 we've seen valleys blackened by the fires. Hulks of burned cars, rusted frames of trailers, lonely chimneys, until at last, where 78 meets Wynola Road, we come to this patch of untouched civilization.
"But, what...? No Chicken Shack?" says Hank. He's looking at a sprawling old house on the left. "That was the Chicken Shack, I swear."
Now it's sprouting a new sign on its roof. Looks like something written backwards. "Gulyas Csarda."
He swings across 78 to this ranchette surrounded by pines and oaks.
"Hot Sausage. Cold Beer. Hot Wine," says a sign.
"Hot wine. Hot diggety," I say.
"Cold beer. Cool," says Hank. Then he spots, Scotch-taped to the window, "Domestic beer. $1 bottle."
"Way cool," he mumbles.
The place is brick with white timbers, darkwood eaves, and little windows. You expect Snow White or the Dwarves to come prancing out. Oh, yeah, and there's a big deck with half a dozen round tables. We hop through the wooden door into, wow, a piece of Europe, transported: life-size bronze sculptures of naked women with lamps on their heads, a medieval table with gothic-arched chairs, a well-used brick fireplace, a painting of a Greek vineyard.
We head for a big chunky table with red-and-black hooped chairs beside a window. Red curtains hang on either side. Hank fingers a flag on the table. Red, white, and green, but with a shield in the middle showing a crown, stripes, a cross.
"Mexican?" I say.
"Not Mexico," says Hank, like he knows. "It's..."
A lady appears, dressed in red and black. "Hungary," she says. "That's the crown of Saint Stephen, our first king. Six years ago we celebrated 1000 years since his coronation, in 1001."
"So this is a Hungarian restaurant?"
"The only Hungarian restaurant in San Diego County."
Her name's María. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Uh, beer," says Hank. "Just one. Driving."
"Hungarian? Czech? American?"
Hank settles on Czech, pays $4.50. So much for his dollar-a-beer idea.
"And you, sir?"
"How much is that hot wine?" I ask. "I ain't driving."
Heck. A lot, but when in Rome...or even a little piece of Hungary outside Julian....
"Uh, one other thing," I say to María. "What does 'Gulyas Csarda' mean?"
"Gulyas is a very popular soup in Hungary. Beef and vegetable. And csarda means 'place.'"
So...The Soup Place. Or, oh Lord. Of course. "Gúlyás," goulash. So this is the "Goulash Inn." I search the menu. Ah, there it is. "Gúlyás Leves: a famous Hungarian beef and vegetable soup." It's $8.50. They also have others, like bean and ham hock, and mushroom and dumplings. María brings Hank's dark beer and my steaming wine. It's light red, in a large water glass, smelling of spices, cloves, and so hot I can't pick it up.
"Prost," I say, when I finally can. "Feeling hungary, dude?"
Hank looks at me funny. He raises his bottle. "Kedves egészségére."
"What da heck is that?"
"'Cheers' -- 'good health' -- in Hungarian."
"Yeah? But how...?"
"My grandmother was Hungarian."
"Man, you're a dark horse. So now can you tell me what to eat?"
Hank recognizes some of the dishes, like Rántott Csirke Vagy Sertés Hus: Chicken or pork wienerschnitzel served with mashed potato and sautéed red cabbage, $13.50. Ulp. "Quite a price, dude," I say. "This what they pay in Budapest?"
"Don't worry. I've got spare." He stabs his finger on number 3, Magyar Kolbász: Hungarian sausage, mash, and red cabbage ($12.50). "Hungarian sausage is always good." He also points to number 4, Magyaros Sertés Pörkölt -- pork stew with mashed potatoes $12.50, and number 6, Ilona's Paprikás Csirke, chicken paprika and sour cream served with rice, $12.50.
By this time, María's back.
"That's what I'm having," Hank says. "Chicken paprika. Learned to cook it at home. And a side of...savanyúság salad."
I see it's a bowl of sliced cucumbers in a vinegar-pepper soup, going for $4.25.
"And you?" says María.
"What's most Hungarian?"
She points to number 14. Brassoi Apropecsenye: Diced garlic pork served with Hungarian fries, $12.90. Fine.
Three people come in while we're waiting: John, Leah, and MaryLynn. They settle down to a few dollar beers and order sausages. John and Leah live on the Mesa Grande reservation just northwest of here. MaryLynn has lived nearby here since '79. She's eaten here four times already since María opened up, not too long before the fires, just her luck. "My favorite is the wienerschnitzel," she says.
I'm feeling pretty happy with my big glass of warm wine by the time María brings our food. Mine is totally garlic-sogged pork chunks with potato bits thrown in. Hank's chicken looks good. The two pieces sit in a sea of dumpling bits and gravy. It turns out this house is maybe 60 years old. But María's used to old things: she ran a restaurant outside Budapest before she came over here. "I arrived in San Diego 20 years ago with bags, two children, and nothing else," she says. "I started driving a yellow cab. Then I bought my cab, but I always wanted to have my own restaurant here. When I heard this was for sale, I sold my taxi and bought this. It means driving up every day from Chula Vista where I live, and we had the fires, but this is what I want. Desserts?"
Two minutes later I get the thrill of chowing into a palacsinta, a crêpe ($4.20) with powdered sugar, strawberries, whipped cream, and, best of all, stuffed with chestnut paste (I could have gone for hazelnut, chocolate syrup, apricot or plum jam instead). Oh, man. I'm a kid again, smelling hot chestnuts roasting on braziers on the streets that time Dad took us to New York City.
Hank's chomping away at his dessert -- apple strudel ($4.20).
He looks up. That funny look again.
"Just wish I'd asked Grandma more about, like, who we were, where we came from, how we spoke, everything. Too late now."
[2009 Editor's Note: Gulyas Csarda Restaurant has since closed.]