During my three month excursion to Italy, I had the pleasure of visiting Budapest, the culturally-rich capital of Hungary. It is the land of gorgeous open-air bath houses, eccentric ruin bars and some of the heartiest, most comforting cuisine in all of Europe.
The many high-calorie, meat-focused dishes that appear on menus across Budapest are at their best when enjoyed during the winter months. This coincides with the not-to-be-missed Christmas markets that fill the city throughout the month of December. The array of bright lights, handmade crafts, aromatic food kiosks and general merriment is magical enough to warm the darkest of souls.
Despite my extremely limited time in the city (approximately 24 hours, regrettably), the food was unforgettable. The highlight was chicken paprikash, A.K.A. chicken drumsticks with a zesty paprika sour cream sauce and egg noodles. Temper that richness with a side of pickled beets with horseradish, and the result is a substantial, balanced meal for the low price of 2700 forints (roughly nine dollars; Hungarian currency is absurd).
Sadly, I was unable to sample Hungary’s most famous contribution to gastronomy, that being goulash. Although it is a dish that would fit in on any American menu, goulash remains an obscure item in the states. Further, the cuisine of Eastern Europe has yet to take off in much of the country (when was the last time you saw paprikash on a restaurant menu?)
Fortunately, there’s a little shop on Manchester’s main drag that’s been offering Hungarian cuisine’s greatest hits for over twenty years. It’s a place with a special type of authentic charm that’s seldom found in the queen city. This is Lala’s Hungarian Pastry and Restaurant.
Since 1997, Lala’s has doled out innumerable portions of Eastern European specialties to weather-weary New Englanders out of a petite storefront on Elm Street.Step inside, and you’ll find yourself immersed in a no-nonsense space redolent of old world charm and tradition. Order and pay at the counter, take a seat and wait in anticipation for a meal that will be difficult to locate elsewhere in the state.
The menu, scrawled out on a few dry erase boards, features crepes, breakfast sandwiches and coffee drinks for folks stumbling in during the morning hours. Shift your attention to the right, and you’ll encounter the lunch side of the operation, which includes some hard-to-find soups, such as beef tripe and sour cherry, and a selection of basic sandwiches.
The highlight; however, is the list of Eastern European classics such as Viennese Schnitzel (a thin slice of pork tenderloin fried until crisp), pork and rice stuffed cabbage with tomato sauce, and shredded zucchini with meatballs in sour cream sauce. Of course, no Hungarian restaurant would be complete without goulash, and Lala’s offers three types: beef, chicken and pork with sauerkraut.
The origins of this rib-sticking dish trace back hundreds of years to herdsman who would slaughter their weakest cattle and prepare a stew from the reserved meat. The word “goulash” is derived from “gulyas,” the Hungarian word for herdsman. The dish failed to gain national acceptance until the 19th century, when Austria’s Habsburg dynasty seized control of Hungary, resulting in a widespread effort to preserve the nation’s culture.
The goulash at Lala’s is best thought of as a chunky, paprika-laced beef stew. The meat, cooked for hours to ensure pull-apart tenderness, is the star, with the accompanying vegetables and aromatics serving as mere enhancers. Served warm (not burn-your-mouth-into-oblivion hot) over a bed of pasta with sides of rice and boiled carrots, it’s European home-cooking at it’s finest.
No trip to Lala’s would be complete without a sweet morsel to cap off the meal, and the offerings are diverse enough to pacify any sweet tooth. Among the cavity-inducing items stocking the pastry case are Austrian linzer tortes, apple turnovers, fig squares, walnut-cardamom cookies and multiple varieties of strudel.
If all this sounds too heavy after a plate of stewed meat with a triad of starches, then instead opt for a couple rugelach. These stuffed, thumb-sized pastries are popular in Jewish communities in the U.S. and beyond.
Made from an impossibly flaky dough enriched with cream cheese, these little bites can be filled in a multitude of ways. Lala’s version is stuffed with an apricot-walnut mixture that provides an intense toasty flavor with a slight brightness that livens up the whole package. The caramelized sugar coating adds an additional blast of sweetness and crunch.
They may not be the most attractive pastry on the shelves, but they’re delicious, and at only fifty cents a piece, dangerously affordable.
Lala’s may not be the trendiest spot in town, but it’s the only place in town bringing a little bit of Budapest to Manchester. After twenty-three years of business, it’s safe to say that the homey cuisine and charming environs have won over the city. Visit Lala’s Hungarian Pastry and Restaurant at 836 Elm Street in the queen city. They’re open for breakfast and lunch; Monday to Saturday.
Originally Published through unconventionaleatsnh.com