As The Budapest Times packs its suitcases for the summer holidays, this column couldn’t resist treating itself to a quick peek at the waterside fun already enjoyed by many in the shape of beaches, sun and fried fish. Beaches are not the prime subject here, and sun shines indiscriminately over Hungary, whether for the city-bound or not.
But fried fish, fresh fried fish, of the kind that gets gobbled up almost straight from the pan with a serving of potato chips, is not so easy to find in the metropolis. That’s unless one – inadvertently or not – strolls along to the District V corner of Veres Pálné utca and Szarka utca, where the two-months-old Halkakas is located.
It’s just off Váci utca and the Kiskörút, a short stroll from the Main Market Hall’s tourist attractions, yet it feels quite off the beaten track. Halkakas’ double doors open onto two quiet streets, letting in light and probably letting out more noise than it receives.
Although its name is a combination of fish (hal) and cockerel (kakas) – apparently a passing reference to a popular Swedish film – the atmosphere and menu make it clear enough that only the first is served here.
The place’s looks are those of an old-fashioned river-side fish eatery, with small round tables ambitiously surrounded by more chairs than they can cater for, wooden walls still a little too new to achieve the desired antiquated effect, and the occasional blast of a German radio channel in between more standard musical fare. A cartoon-like fish with a rooster’s bright red comb and wattles, painted on the wall, reminds the visitor that this is also a youthful place.
As to the menu, it’s all in Hungarian – reflecting the place’s real catchment area – but staff speak good English too. Still, it’s a good way of revising vocabulary for those for whom it’s a bit of a challenge to differentiate one fin type from another in Hungarian. The options fit neatly within a page, too, which makes them easy to navigate.
First off, then, are the starters: fried carp (ponty), smoked silver carp (busa) pâté, smoked trout (pisztráng) pâté, catfish (harcsa) and curry pâté and fried catfish, most served with a dipping sauce and some slices of baguette. Mixed platters, including a couple of the above items and some more, are also available in servings for one or two, and are a good way to have a try at tasting the variety of local fishes that is on offer.
Small pieces of carp, fried in a crisp batter, feature alongside slices of smoked catfish – an interesting, meaty-looking but delicately flavoured concept – and a small serving of smoked trout pâté. The latter is prepared with eggs and a dose of chive, and makes for a delicious and light spread on the few thin slices of baguette. A wedge of lemon and a small salad of green leaves, tomato, pepper and olive round this off.
More local freshwater fish names appear under the mains, which include whole grilled pike-perch (süllõ), trout and the small and apparently rather bony crucian carp (kárász) alongside grilled catfish fillet. Salad (various components can be selected at the counter), grilled vegetables and fries are the available accompaniments.
But Halkakas’ real specialities, even if prepared like everything else from locally sourced, fresh fish, have a more international flavour. The catfish gyros comes with a ladleful of small pieces of grilled fish, to be dipped in cool tzatziki sauce or in an excellent tomato and basil sauce. Another serving of mixed salad drizzled with olive oil, another wedge of lemon and another ladleful of fries: this is simple, tasty, summery food.
With so much fish, so much batter and so much potato around, it would be odd not to have fish and chips there too, and it’s actually the star dish here. Anglo-Saxons should not expect a one-piece thin fillet of cod. Rather, the meat is chunky, unequal in size, resulting in large knobbly pieces of crispy batter (one could wish it to be a wee bit more flavourful) releasing good mouthfuls of catfish. Chunky and unequal (meaning hand-cut) are the chips, too, along with being nicely fried and just salted enough. A bit more salad for a healthier impression, some onion and dill dip, and here’s another substantial, fuss-free sea- (river-, lake-, street-) side treat in the middle of the city.
There are soups, salads and sandwiches too, which in various combinations make up the two daily menus, and more fish in soups on Friday evenings.
On the drinks side, there is no fish juice: instead a long series of cordials (sour cherry, pear, rosehip, elderflower, strawberry, mixed berries), lemonade, fruit juices, vegetable juices (carrot and apple, beetroot and apple), beers and brandies (pálinka) whose common point is that they are all sourced from small Hungarian producers, tea and coffee being the only exceptions.
Starters and soups: HUF 450-850
Mains and salads: HUF 550-1,300
Sides: HUF 350-450
Cordials, fruit and vegetable juices (dl): from HUF 80
Beer (0.33l): HUF 500-550
District V, Veres Pálné utca 33
Open Mon.-Sat. 12noon-10pm
Tel. (+36) 30 226-0638