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Cheap Tasty Finds? Prague, Krakow, Budapest

Will be backpacking for a month through these places. Will be on a backpacker's budget. I love food markets, bakeries, and cheap dinners. Also, recommendations for atmospheric pubs/wine bars, etc.

I will likely NOT have the budget for "that one special meal" at Grundel or anything (and I'm OK with that). So bring on the recommendations!

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  1. I spent two and a half hours writing a response to this question last light only to lose both it and the backup I had been running to a wayward keystroke. Grrr! But here’s the Readers’ Digest version of what I have to say about eating cheaply in Budapest (this is a synopsis of and supplement to the page devoted to that question on our website about Budapest, http://everythingbudapest.eu).

    Until this summer, eating inexpensively in Budapest required no effort. It wasn’t the kind of unbelievably cheap experience people wrote about in Central Europe in the early 1990s, but you always felt that you were getting one or two notches more and better than what you were paying for.

    Now, the weakness of the dollar and the euro against the Hungarian Forint have taken that edge away, and finding good cheap food, or great culinary values, can be hard work. Still possible to do, just have to mind your step. Here’s my instruction manual:

    Step 1: Make use of the Daily Menu offered by almost all restaurants. As in much of Europe, Hungarian restaurants have the practice of offering a 2- or 3- course daily special at far below the normal a la carte prices. The portions are generally large, the food good and fresh. Ingredients tend to be less costly, more starches and veggies, the cuts of meat less tender and the preparations in the stew and confit direction. But the single best deal that’s widely available. Look out for signs that read Mai Menu or Nyari Menu or Deli Menu or Touriszt Menu. A couple of places with especially good deals are: The Old Amsterdam on Kiraly Pal utca (about $4 for three courses) and what many think is Budapest’s best restaurant – Csalogany 26 – in Buda. They have an extraordinary deal in the form of a 3 course lunch for under $10. Make reservations at the latter, come early to the former. When the dishes run out the menu offer goes away.

    Step 2: Etkezdes – These are lunch dives, like diners but much smaller and without the Cool Whip patisserie. Often steam tables/short order kitchens with walk-up windows and the food and orders passing frenetically through (try Norbi on Tatra utca) and sometimes sit down places oozing pre-1990 bare bones décor (try the Kadar Etkezde on Klauzal ter). Cheap, hearty, local food, few tourists, requires some willingness to deal with the Hungarian menus usually (Kadar has English menus).

    Step 3: Fozelek joints – also luncheon places with a few tables, scattered around the city. Pre-1990 the comfort food of choice tended to be vegetables cooked to death in heavily starched sauces (vegetarians beware that lard was often a key component, less so now but you should ask). There are a bunch of sort of retro Fozelek restos, one on Nagymezo just off Andrassy, another on Magyar utca as it curves off Kecskemet utc at Kalvin ter, but they are pretty much everywhere, if invisible (there’s one on Pozsonyi ut as well, near Szent Istvan krt). Kind of like high school cafeteria food, but pleasingly womblike, and very close to free.

    Step 4: Langos and palacsinta places. Langos is Hungary’s version of fried dough (lard again); a discus sized and shaped chunk of warmth that they then slather cheese and/or sour cream on. Or not. And then you drizzle garlic in more oil over it. Slides down easily, kind of bricklike in your gut after a while, but absolutely heavenly when done well and freshly. About a buck or two. My favorite is at the Ecseri flea market, but it’s very good on the mezzanine of the Central Market Hall as well, and ubiquitous…Palacsint are crepes, sweet or savory. Very tasty, very cheap. There are palacsinta joints around, the most famous (and not very good to my tastes, but others swear by it) is Nagymama Palacsinta in Bathyany ter (by the Red Metro) and off Szervita ter. Internet café as well. A buck or two or three depending on filling.

    Step 5: Retes, aka strudel. Retes comes sweet or savory (cabbage, broccoli…) and there are retes bolts (shops) scattered around. My favorite is on Lehel ut near Robert Karoly krt. Good one on Pozsonyi ut, with a branch as well behind the university to the south of the Szabadsag Bridge in Buda. Two savory plus a sweet plus a drink makes a meal that will take your mind off eating for a day or so. Under $5 usually.

    Step 6. All You Can Eat – not cheap but comprehensive. Go to Trefea Grill by the Buda side of the Margaret Bridge, or on Victor Hugo utca on the corner of Visegradi utca. Midweek lunch is about $20, dinner less than $30. A gazillion Hungarian dishes done surprisingly well (best fried chicken in Budapest). Marinated meats grilled to order. Dessert bar. Unlimited wine, beer, soft drinks; unlimited coffee/tea. Great, great value. For even more money but even better value, the Sunday Brunch at the Meridien, the Kempinski, the Gellert, and the Corinthia Grand hotels is pretty much over the top. Go ravenous and graze for three hours. Very high end dishes like excellent foie gras pate can usually be found, a carvery, great desserts. The Kempinski has excellent breads, the Meridien terrific patisserie, the Corinthia a fusion kitchen, and the Gellert a hell of a view. A quarter the price of Gundel’s and a very worthwhile splurge.

    Step 7. The Central Market. A not very cheap bare bones restaurant on the mezzanine (good food) but a range of stand up steam table places ring the mezzaznine as well, and these are cheap. The Brumi is the big one in the middle of the side closest to the river. Good wursts and stews. To its right there are a couple of places with good fried foods (and langos). Pretty cheap, though these are stand up eat fast places. A better deal is to make use of the market and buy your own stuff, then wander near the river and picnic. If you head out the back end of the market and walk along the river about 5 blocks downstream there’s a grungy but pleasant park (Nehru Park, after the several old warehouses, at Zsil utca). The Market has tons of fruit and vegetable places, stalls that sell just about anything that ever came near a pig, wursts and salamis and just plain heavy food. Bread is best if you go to the right as you enter and then down to the first indentation on your left. Cheese is best in the place right at the friont as you enter on the right of center. Avoid pastry. I like the cold cuts from the place with the yellow sign, down the middle aisle on the right side after the first cross path...labeled Baromfi (poultry). There’s a farmer’s market on Friday/Saturday, in the back, in a separte room…walk all the way down the center aisle, pass the orange juice guy and the pay toilets, follow the corridor around to a second, smaller, selling hall. On weekdays ther’s artisanal dairy; on weekends there’s a guy with home-made bacon, salami, etc as well as farm stands. Usually there are mushroom ladies selling foraged mushrooms (certified non-lethal by the in-house mycologists); if you want mushrooms, haggle furiously, they’ll drop their prices by half. Avoid the fake Hungarian truffles.

    Step 8: Hus Hentesaru shops – Butchers often sell prepared dishes, stand up and eat or take out. Fried chicken, barbecued chicken, wursts, hunks of meat under heat lamps. Cheap, often very good. There’s one at Nagyvarad ter on Ulloi ut that I like, but they’re everywhere.

    Step 9: Chinese food and pizza – surprisingly not bad. Lots of Kinai Gyors Bufes (Chinese Fast Buffets). Steam tables with a range of Chinese dishes $5-7 gets you a big meal. I patronize one opposite the parking garage on the left side of Szervita ter (lunch only I think) and on Raday utca a few blocks in from Kalvin ter. But again, they’re everywhere. Pizza can be very good. I like a little place around the corner from the law school at Egyetem ter, on kiralyi Pal utca, Mix Pizza. Cheap and good. The Kicsimama Etkezde has very tasty deep dish pizza-like stuff, on Lonyay just off Vamhaz krt (brand new, large arrayt of steamtable foods; I love the stuffed peppers here, also fozelek, soups, stews…). The Pink Cadillac is a cross between a café and a pizzeria on Raday and not bad and not too expensive. Check out Vapiano on Becsi utca near Szervita ter. A fastfood franchise, cooked to order pasta pizaas and salads. Remarkable, relatively cheap (about $10) and very tasty. http://vapianointernational.com

    Step 10: Cafes and Cukraszdas (pastry shops) – Not especially cheap in general, but Budapest is the last of the serious café cultures. Bring a book and/or a laptop (they mostly have free WiFi) order one cup of coffee and sit forever. The Alibi on Egyetem ter, the Csiga on Rakoczi ter, the Castro off Deak ter on Madach Imre ter are all inexpensive places with excellent food as well as coffee and drinks. For pastry, wander into the Auguszt in a courtyard off Kossuth Lajos ut, or the Kristaly on Jozsef Korut, or find the tinym, very local, Farkas on Brody Sandor utca, or the kosher Frohlich on Dob. For pastry without mucgh in the way of sitting, the Jeg Bufe at Ferenciek tere and the Nandori Cukraszda on Raday past Bakats ter.

    9 Replies
    1. re: farago

      Wow, thank you so much for this incredibly in depth, helpful response. Posts like this are what the internet is truly for! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

      1. re: farago

        --------
        "I spent two and a half hours writing a response to this question last light only to lose both it and the backup I had been running to a wayward keystroke. Grrr!"
        --------

        Ack, sorry! NEVER compose long replies in your browser. It's asking for trouble! Better to write in a word processor then paste in! But I'm really glad you had the fortitude to redo it, what a great posting!!

        1. re: Jim Leff

          i go the other way round and compose in browsers and backup in my word processor by cutting and pasting from the browser...and i managed to trash both simultaneously, a feat that required significant dexterity

          1. re: farago

            I just wanted readers along to know that farago, one of our oldest and best posters, has an absolutely splendid web site about Budapest (focusing mostly on food, naturally) at http://www.budapestvacationrentals.com
            I've been surfing through, and am ready to jump on an airplane....

            1. re: Jim Leff

              jim's reference to our website is almost as gratifying as his too-kind words, but he's sending you to our Budapest apartment rental website (where of course you are most welcome), which only indirectly gets you to our Budapest food (and other stuff) website: http://everythingbudapest.eu/Budapest...

              1. re: farago

                That was NOT a "paid placement"! Just a bad cut-and-paste....

                1. re: farago

                  Hi Farago,
                  Someone on another thread mentioned veg-friendly restaurants by the names of Artichoke and Apricot in Budapest but I can't find any info on them. I posted on that thread asking for more info, but he hasn't responded. Do you know anything about them?
                  Köszönöm

                  1. re: lgss

                    I have never been to either, and i believe the post you refer to is an old one (and restaurants come and go in Budapest, and change names, with a rapidity that strikes awe into the casual observer sitting in a cafe across the street (among Vegetarians, note the passing this summer of Vegetarium into something less meat-impaired) ... BUT, try this for artichoke (which may or may not still be vegetarian: http://www.articsoka.hu/ or this: http://www.caboodle.hu/index.php?id=4...

                    Apricot is more problematic to search for...i have not heard of it and the word for Apricot in Hungarian is Barack ... and try searching for that these days on Google! The one listing I can come up with: http://www.barackos.eu/ is for a restaurant that appears (in Hungarian) to be selling off all its equipment and furnishings, which does not bode well for the dining experience...and it was not named after the fruit but rather after the street it's located on; vegetarian places are, you'll pardon the expression, slim pickin's in Budapest, but i try to keep an eye out and include them on the vegetarian page of my website at http://everythingbudapest.eu/Budapest...

                    1. re: farago

                      Thanks. Looks like neither belongs on our list.