It’s like something out of a crazy play by the French Ionesco. You look under “Automobile Repairing & Service" in the Yellow Pages, dial National Competition Foreign Car Repair at 1555 State Street, downtown, and inquire “Do you have a Hungarian restaurant?" And the answer is. absurdly, “Yes, we're open Monday through Friday from 9 to 8 p.m." But the real question to ask is if the Paprika Restaurant is Underground Gourmet, something which San Diego desperately needs. Yes, it has a colorful history, and yes, it has a hole-in-the-wall family atmosphere, and yes, the small menu is authentically ethnic and reasonably inexpensive, when it is a question of The Lunch Special, but one crucial element is missing, I am sorry, I wish it weren't, and that's distinction when it comes to the food itself.
Dezso Bozsogi, the owner, is a gregarious, likeable man who, appropriately enough, makes himself right at home and can't resist talking about the place, himself, his two college-age daughters, wine, and women. At lunch he comes in from working on the cars in back and sits down in back of the small four-seat counter, talking in Hungarian and English to men on the other side, and eating the $1.65 Special which his wife brings him. Eventually he makes his way over to our table. “You like it? If you don’t like it. I'll fire my cook." He winks, then says accusingly, “what's the matter? You didn’t eat all your noodles, our customers always clean their plates.” His story. He has a degree in mechanical engineering, is a pilot, and 13 years ago Convair called him up in Hungary and asked him to come over, which he did. and after four days they parted company over citizenship problems. From there to racing (he points to the trophies around the room). From there to car repair. And then three years ago when his family finally joined him. “Hungarian Home Cooking," as their card says, was institutionalized.
“I've got the best clientele in town — lawyers, doctors, mayors (??)." he says proudly. "We’re the second best restaurant in San Diego, second only to the Grant Grill, everyone says so." Love him for his Mark Twain quality of exaggeration and conviviality but don't take this as any kind of gospel, although you can be less skeptical when he discourses on how people enjoy themselves here. “It's a family place, we're all friends here." As if to prove it, he says “hi. how are you?" to the mailman who just walked in. "On New Year's Eve I have a couple coming all the way from Idaho. They say they've never seen such a New Year's — there's dancing everywhere, out in the streets, everywhere."
Hungarians are known for their sociability, their food is known first of all for its paprika. In fact, Hungarian paprika, grown in the south and ranging from delicate to rose to temperamental, has even inspired a national hero: the Nobel Prize-winning. Professor Albert Szent-Grzorgyi who proved that Hungarian paprika is a rich source of vitamin “C" — five times richer than the orange — and named it “ascorbic acid.” Think of Hungarian cuisine and you think of sour cream, soups and liquid-plenty stews, more ways of cooking cabbage than anyone could think possible, and dumplings, and hot noodle desserts, and light, fairy-fragile strudel. Unfortunately too many of these elements are missing from The Paprika Restaurant, and the truth is that on balance the cooking is plain and unadorned, even dowdy, never underground-gourmet. Oh, you could wish for even a dollop of decadent sour cream, a dash of fiery paprika, for a torte sinfully sweet, but you won't find it here.
The Chicken Paprika, a Friday lunch special, is not only bland but completely lacking in the required sour cream: you do, however, receive three nice-sized pieces of chicken set on an enormous bed of plain noodles and shredded cabbage as salad, although a cucumber salad would have been more welcome. The Goulash (a steep $2 45 at lunch, rising to $2 95 at dinner), served with those adorable but here resistant bite-sized dumplings ("galuska"), is tasteless — why not add a little caraway to bring out the flavor of the paprika? The Fatanyeros, a platter of weinerschnitzel (a thick eggy coating) veal, chicken, and beef for two with, of course, plain boiled potato plus dill pickles in one corner. red cabbage in another, and a few- other accoutrements is nothing to be ashamed of but then at S9.50 at night it's nothing to embrace either: that's plain just too expensive. and the waitress clearly discouraged us from ordering it for three.
But there are a few tasty dishes you will encounter here which would be difficult, if not impossible. to locate anywhere else in San Diego. The "Lecso," a Tuesday-special. is a delicious and soupy vegetable stew of green peppers, tomatoes, and lots of sliced onions, to which cubes of beef are added, all seasoned only with paprika, salt, and pepper. And quite good are their dessert crepes (“palacsinla") filled with deep thick chocolate or apricot jam or cottage cheese and dusted with stripes of sugar — two for a bargain price of 75 cents. And try and get “langos" anywhere else. It’s a 40-cent dessert, a puff of fried dough about the size of a saucer looking for all the world like an ancestor of pizza, which in fact it is. Reminiscent of the taste of popovers. served with strawberry syrup, it’s deceptively light and pleasant. But disappointment — although the menu lists Hungarian pastries, on the three occasions I’ve been there, there’s never been a one.
Also available. Every other Wednesday lunch you can order stuffed cabbage, on Friday night there's roast piglet. Hungarian sausage for $2.45 at every lunch, and espresso for 50c which arrives in a plain coffee cup. Also. Hungarian wines. You would think it would be France who would celebrate her wines in national anthem, but no, it’s Hungary: "On the grapevine of Tokai/Thou dripped nectar..." There are three strengths of Tokay Aszu, the wine. I'm told. Mephisto offered Faust, ranging from $6.80 to $7.80, and a Tokay Furmint at S6.00. also a sweet dessert wine, but less rich than the Aszu: three Hungarian whites at around $5: and two reds, including an Egri Brikaver, the second most famous Hungarian wine, called Bull's Blood because it's rumored, my god, that's exactly what the makers add to it. And beers, plenty of beers, but no house wine, no cheap California wines, so drinking here runs immediately into the money.
The place I like — very small and homey with red-and-white checked picnic table cloths on the 8 tables for lunch which turn to white at night, the Number 4 bus wheezing past, the Hungarian record albums and postcards, the improbable moose (?) bull horns, and the courteous, most courteous waitress at lunch. But times are already changing. Bozsogi has been so successful, it seems, that he is already working on a place a few steps away to be named the Gypsy Cellar. In fact, after dinner one night, he showed it to us. explaining that it will seat 45 for dinner, and have live entertainment "direct from Hungary." The bar is already installed, it looks slick, and I wonder if it's a good change to make. Fortunately lunch will still be served in the old place across the street.