My family’s visit to the Hungarian-American Cultural Center illustrated why reviewers are supposed to go undercover. Volunteer waitress and HACC board member Rose Antal discovered ahead of time that I was coming, and then spotted me. We generally received the royal treatment all around; chef Rose Tuske was brought from the kitchen to meet us.
Rose Antal wouldn’t have discovered me, however, if she hadn’t been in the habit of welcoming newcomers and asking them where they’re from. When we went back a few weeks later, our next waitress was just as friendly.
You don’t have to be Hungarian to feel at home here. The HACC was founded by immigrants who came to this country after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. (The display cases outside the restaurant proper include a poem to those freedom fighters.)
They grew up in Delray when you didn’t have to speak English to get along. In fact, Rose Tuske was the cook at a Delray landmark, Al’s Bar, near the old Fleetwood plant.
The welcome starts with a sign over the bar: Isten hozott, which means "God brought you," and is a traditional Hungarian greeting.
Actually, the welcome begins before that, when you walk in and smell the food cooking. It was a surprise to me to realize that usually you don’t smell cooking food in a restaurant.
It feels homey. I asked a table of contented-looking oldsters if they came here often.
"On Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays," was their reply. Well, the HACC is only open on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Given the type of food served, I hope these folks are eating only lettuce the rest of the week.
The HACC’s fare is like what many of us think of as the best home cooking: Rich, generous, with a health-take-the-hindmost kind of feel.
Chicken paprikas, for example, ladles on the sour cream and lots of little dumplings. You get four pieces of chicken for less than $7, and the pale orange sauce is rich and creamy. Meat loaf comes with bacon on top and has a mellow, hammy flavor, with mashed potatoes and red cabbage on the side. A friend who ate leftovers with us one night said she’d been trying to reproduce that flavor for years.
A casserole called rakott kapusta includes ground pork, curly cabbage, rice and sour cream, and exemplifies the best of the casserole-maker’s art: A rich blend that brings out each flavor, especially pungent cabbage, separately.
Wednesday is gulyas (goulash) night. This is not what those moms from the more white-bread ethnicities used to call goulash, which meant just about anything; it’s a rich, red broth with celery, carrots, potatoes, big chunks of beef and, of course, paprika. One night ours tasted of caraway; another night, not.
Lentil soup is not the Jane Brody version; it’s rich, red-orange and filled with rounds of sausage. We did not sample kocsonya, jellied pigs’ feet, which our waitress called "an acquired taste."
Desserts abound, including strudel, chocolate torte, carrot cake, racsos teszta (a pastry with ground walnuts and apricots) and palacsinta. The latter is a crepe with a filling of prune, apricot, cheese or a mixture.
HACC has a full bar. I tried a Hungarian apricot white wine, which was dry and a little turpentiney, but I got used to it quickly. Hours are Wednesday and Friday 5-9 p.m.; Sunday noon-7 p.m. Come early, or your favorite may be erased from the whiteboard. No credit cards.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].