Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: More than goulash on the menus

If you are about to choose a restaurant to go to in Budapest, first click back on this link to our favorite, Fricska Gastropub.

The courtyard patio of Kazimir (featured photo) is a pleasant place to sit. Both the chicken with apples and brie and the parmesan-crusted chicken are excellent, and Kazimir’s bowlful of roasted vegetables topped with parmesan presents a welcome change from heavier fare.

Ultra-casual Jelen Bisztro is a major bargain, a spot to balance out your average meal tabs if you have been splurging. Couscous salad is fresh and light; layered eggplant with pesto is nice and rich; and zucchini fritters are perfect for weekend brunching.

Fried chicken and a mushroom risotto were the lunchtime offerings the day we went to La Tabla, the casual sibling to the more upscale Esca Studio. Both were perfectly prepared, but not inspiring enough specials to draw us away from Fricska. We probably should have tried again on another day.

Not recommended unless you need to lunch mid-sightseeing on the Buda side were Pater Marcus Abbey and Dunaparti Matroz Kocsma. Although we almost were tempted to return for Dunaparti’s mussels, both restaurants are heavy on the touristy side.

Normally, I try not to be too critical in these posts and just skip over a restaurant that turns us off completely, but…. Stand25 Bisztro in the Hold Utca market receives such high ratings and is touted by many as the absolute best place try goulash. We went, and we tried the goulash. It convinced us not to order goulash again during our entire month. The flavor of the lamb pate was unremarkable; the layered potatoes were merely heavy, not tasty; and the beef shoulder smothered with gravy and topped with a grilled round of bread was as unappealing as it appears in the photo. And this lunch was not inexpensive.

Our experience at Stand25 sent us scurrying for refuge in restaurants offering foreign foods, an advantage in visiting a capital city. Missing Spanish dishes, we ducked into Padron for tapas – seared padron chiles and eggplant with goat cheese, honey and walnuts. Cured.

We enjoyed exploring the Lebanese and Mediterranean offerings of Dobrumba. The harira soup loaded with chickpeas, the tender pulpo and potatoes and the squid cooked in red wine all make memorable meals.

Padthai Wok Bar is a chain, but the made-to-order dishes taste so fresh. The one in our Pest neighborhood has outdoor seating on a beautiful little plaza.

And, of course, there’s Fricska. Oh, and those sweet potato fries at Samu-Rice.

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: More saffron and less of everything else needed in my paella pan

Ask a purely traditional cook from Valencia, Spain, about paella, and you are told there is only one. It contains rabbit, chicken and maybe sausage or snails.

But I realized after a month consuming rice dishes there, we never tried the classic version. Seafood lovers have corrupted many a restaurant kitchen, and experimental contemporary chefs led us into playful flavorful territory.

Two things I learned I have always done incorrectly: I am too stingy with saffron, and I put too much of everything else in the pan. Proper Valencian paella is shallow in depth to allow the rice to caramelize in the bottom and particularly around the edges of the pan. This crispy crust – socarrat – is key, and Valencians are not timid about vigorously scraping the dish, even when served in a communal pan. Of course, I’m not even sure we can buy the real Valencian rice at home – the rice grown specifically for its capabilities of absorbing the broth quickly without turning into mush.

Also, paella should be made only upon ordering. The broad pans are only set on the stove for at least two; you just are out of luck if no one at the table is willing to share. If your paella arrives on a plate dished out of a large deep pre-prepared pan in the kitchen, we’re talking by pure Valencian standards, it’s just wrong.

As the photos demonstrate, we violated tradition by ordering seafood paella, such as the one at Namua, and, horrors, even a verde, all-vegetable one at Viva Mascaraque. We weren’t disappointed at all.

Another rice preparation prevalent in the region adds more rich stock to the pan than the rice can absorb – arroz merloso. Mythos Tapas y Mas featured a different one daily on its comida specials, and we enjoyed a wild mushroom and bean one at Refugio. Foam-topped mussel-plump arroz at Seu Xerea fell into this category as well.

And then, there were the totally unexpected, on our part, arrivals in paella pans – fideo noodles, caramelized the same way as the rice. Don’t tell any of the traditionalists, but my favorite dish delivered in a paella pan was the black fideo filled with tender pulpo served at Viva Mascaraque. We greedily scraped up very bit of socarrat we could. Just wanted to save the kitchen staff some elbow grease.

Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: With abundant seafood, an ideal place to spend a meatless Lent

For anyone giving up meat for Lent, Campeche City would be an ideal place to spend the 40 days. Seafood is inexpensive and abundant. Finding fresh ceviche is no problem, and the huge shrimp are wonderful. A local favorite preparation is coconut shrimp, but menus offered many other options. Likewise, pulpo was prepared in vastly varying recipes.

My absolute favorite seafood dish was the stacked salpicon de mero (a fish confusingly translated sometimes as grouper and sometimes as Chilean sea bass) offered at La Parrilla Colonial. Our top vote-getter for shrimp was a grilled wheel of shrimp topped with a cheese and spinach sauce served at Bavit 59. Other standouts included the cubes of ahi tuna topped with avocado at Bavit 59; camarones de coco and tostadas topped with pulpo al achiote at Restaurante Don Gustavo; and the achiote tuna tacos at La Parrilla Colonial.

And then there is dogfish. Americans have been slow on the uptake to eat dogfish, even though the small shark is commonplace from Maine to Florida. Fishermen harvesting them on the East Coast ship them off to England. The English apparently do not possess the same degree of seafood snobbery and gobble them up in pubs frying them for fish and chips. This lack of a market in the United States probably is a good thing because it takes a long time for these spiny dogfish to make babies; their gestation period is 18 to 24 months.

In Campeche, however, dogfish or cazon, is celebrated and used in numerous traditional dishes. Pan de cazon resembles stacked enchiladas. Black refried beans are spread on multiple layers of corn tortillas, topped with stewed, shredded dogfish and then covered with a tomato sauce prior to baking. Another centuries-old recipe features chiles xcatic, a regional yellow pepper, filled with stewed cazon. Although flavorful, we were not bowled over by either of these complex preparations. But this was not because of the flavor of dogfish. The cazon dish most to our liking was the simplest one – fresh dogfish tacos. We enjoyed these as an appetizer at Los Delfines, one of a strip of casual seafood palapa restaurants clustered together on one end of the malecon, a concrete boardwalk stretching miles along the bayfront.

We did eat meat several times. The Mister was smitten by the chicken with chaya, Mayan tree spinach, at La Parrilla Colonial. In addition to an elevated preparation of cochinita pibil, the kitchen turns out a flavorful taco al pastor for less than $1. Luan Restaurante Café offers a remarkably good milanesa telera, similar to a bolillo, but the cafe’s hours varied wildly. We broke away from regional specialties several times to enjoy Italian food at Scattola 59.

Both Luan and Scattola 59 endeared themselves to us because they carried multiple bottles of reasonably priced red wine. Some of the best restaurants in town made us feel as though they were conning tourists, as in us. They regularly claimed to be out of wines we ordered, with the only ones available as substitutes priced $5 or even $10 more. This touristy treatment made it hard to feel at home in the place we were staying for three weeks. A waiter at a boutique hotel should not be expected to beg customers to post positive reviews on TripAdvisor. And, in addition to upselling wine at another restaurant, the Mister had to endure a 15-minute parade of expensive Tequila offerings before finally being served the one he originally requested, strangely presented perched in a Johnnie Walker glass.

Aside from warning you to beware of or prepare to endure those peeves, we’d recommend any of the mentioned restaurants. The food in Campeche is distinctively different – in a good way – from any other place we have been in Mexico. Sure wish I’d encounter salpicon de mero in San Antonio.