Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hungarian Roots, part 1 - Jozsa Corner

Pittsburgh is a melting pot of eastern European cultures. When the city's mills and factories were booming during the industrial revolution, people from all over the world came to Pittsburgh to chase the American dream. In the hills and valleys where the three rivers meet, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Serbian, Hungarian, Ukrainian and many more communities came together and gave this city its unique character. It is most evident in the local food traditions. Pierogies are kind of a big deal here. Its tradition to serve pork and sauerkraut at New Years and people are crazy for coleslaw, pickles and keilbasa. The city is dotted with small restaurants that serve their communities with the dishes of their homelands, the food of their people. This is certainly the case for Jozsa Corner.

Beef goulash from Jozsa Corner
I'd heard about this place since I moved here five years ago and have been intrigued ever since.  You don't make reservations at Jozsa Corner, you make an appointment. From what people had described to me, you are basically dining in someone's living room on the most rustic homemade Hungarian fare this side of the Atlantic ocean. I have quite a bit of Hungarian and Romanian blood flowing through my veins and comfort food for me includes chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage and goulash. Give me some pickled herring, dense brown bread and a briny, fermented pickle and I'm a happy girl. Looking at Jozsa's menu online, the siren call of my ancestors echoed in my heart.

The descriptions were absolutely accurate, this place could not be more unpretentious or informal. The old building sits in front of railroad tracks on a sparsely populated corner in a working class neighborhood. It has a storefront with a counter, a couple of stools, a kitchen with an ancient cook top and well worn appliances. You can imagine generations of Hungarian immigrants stopping in after their shifts at the factory to pick up dinner on their way home.
Dinner in the parlor
Alex Jozsa, our proprietor, looks to be about 70 years old and he chatted with our party of five people when we arrived, making sure he learned everyone's names. He took us through the kitchen, past the tiny sink and into the living room where we would dine. On the way past, we met Alex's daughter, who was busy cooking the meal were about to enjoy.  Alex has a couple of banquet tables set up in the parlor and you are literally sitting next to his old TV, family piano and cluttered bookshelves. The walls are adorned with old black and white photos of immigrants and Alex's original paintings.

Its just he and his daughter, cooking dinner for people when they get appointments, which is no more than about 10 at a time. At lunch, they serve to-go dishes like keilbasa sandwiches, soups and single servings of haluska, which is sauteed cabbage and egg noodles. For dinner, you don't order off a menu, its just whatever Alex wants to cook that day. It is served on plastic tablecloths with plastic forks and styrophome plates and bowls. There is a pitcher of water on the table with no ice. This is as no-frills and you get.

Transylvanian goulash
There was tart red cabbage salad on the table when we arrived and it tasted like something I'd find in my grandmother's icebox. Every 20 minutes or so, Alex would arrive with another big bowl of food. We started with langos, which is a round, doughy flatbread that is crispy on the outside, and it was served with mushroom paprikash - big, meaty slices of mushrooms in their own juices, heavily imbued with flavorful paprika. We had goulash, chicken paprikash, haluska, cucumber and dill salad and something called Transylvanian goulash, which was pork shoulder cooked in sauerkraut in a rich, tomatoey sauce. For dessert, Alex took a warm langos and covered it with chopped dried fruits, chocolate chips and chopped nuts. It was a lovely sweet ending to a dinner that touched my Hungarian roots.

The Hungarian dishes I grew up eating were prepared differently than Alex's, but I found his cooking to be totally authentic. That food probably tasted exactly the same as it did when his grandmother prepared it a century ago. I was inspired by this dinner and committed myself to cooking all my favorite Hungarian dishes over the next six months. The following weekend, I bought a pork shoulder and a couple bags of sauerkraut and I made Transylvanian goulash. While I would put my paprikash or goulash up against Alex's any day, my version of this dish didn't come close to what he served us that night in his living room. This winter, I'll be cooking the beloved Hungarian dishes I learned from my mother and will post the recipes here so you can give them a try.

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