I’ve written about how wrong it is to take food out of context; how wrong it is to appropriate someone else’s national cuisine without fully understanding its nuances, its history, and its preparation techniques. I’ve written about the wrong ways to do food tourism, to eat without thinking, to claim that you’re eating a city. I’ve even written about how wrong it is to exoticize a food, to make it seem overtly foreign or strange.
Then, I went to Budapest on a cruise, and I saw what I’d written about from the other way around. Most specifically, in the form of a gooey, cheesy, greasy, meaty chimichanga.
Mexican food hadn’t exactly been on my mind when Ryan and I decided to walk the few miles from our hotel atop Buda Castle Hill across the Elizabeth Bridge and over to the Jewish Quarter. A lot of other things were on my mind, and maybe Mexican food was on my mind by proximity to what I was actually thinking about, but really, Mexican food was about as far from my mind as the name of the kid who sat next to me in fifth grade math class.
Instead, our mission was to find a ruin bar, gritty, artistic havens that bear the name because they sprung up inside the crumbling buildings on Kazinczy Street in the early 2000s. It didn’t take us long to find Szimpla Kert, the first and most famous of them, where we drank warm pilsner on recycled picnic benches in a drizzling rain.
The insides looked like the insides of tattoo parlors and old garages, a mishmash of thrift store items, antique and outdated furniture, disused cars, and overgrown indoor gardens. Next to the discarded Trabant, there was a skinny tree with hundreds of rolled-up pieces of paper stuck on its limbs and tied to its branches. “It’s a wishing tree,” the bartender told us. The whole place felt strangely un-European; it felt too much like the inside of an American dive bar, complete with the mismatched chairs, the upside-down lamps, and the warped and cracked furniture, colorful paint peeling off on all sides.
Before we left, I wrote one simple wish on it, one that meekly asked to help me find my way this year. In a way, I—intrepid globetrotter that I was—was a little bit tired of wandering.
After we finished our pilsners and continued down Kazinczy Street, we came upon El Rápido, a Hungarian taco shop dressed up exactly like Tucson. It was our desert town through and through, right down to the rough paintings of saguaros, statues of Dia de los Muertos skeletons, cowboy hats and prickly pear cacti. Flashing images of my life in Tucson, a life I missed dearly, superimposed themselves onto rainy, urban Budapest with its tall spires and massive cathedrals. We had moved exactly nine months ago and had looked back about a million times. Each time we metaphorically “looked back,” we both realized how much we missed it–even the things about the desert that we swore we’d never miss (like the empty shopping malls, the sweltering summers, the dilapidated, dusty buildings, the giant bugs–all that lovely stuff).
We ordered chimichangas, the irony of ordering a food that was invented in Tucson not lost on us. For those of you who don’t know the legend, it’s a simple one: in 1922, a chef was making a burrito, dropped it in a vat of oil, and pulled it out. “Chimichanga!” she yelped, careful to substitute a Mexican swear word for a simpler, nicer word (it’s like an English equivalent to “thingamabob”). As she turned it around in her fingers, she looked at the burrito dripping of oil, the tortilla becoming crispy in a beautiful, bubbly way, and realized that all the ingredients had stayed inside. It was warm, and crunchy, and intact. Voila!, she thought. It’s a chimichanga. It’s going on the menu.
The craze spread. Apparently, even, to this grungy Mexican-style restaurant in the Jewish Quarter in Budapest.
Here’s what was most strange, though.
All through lunch, Ryan begged me to try and communicate to the lady behind the counter frying the chimis that we were artifacts of the place from where this restaurant drew its inspiration. This is our town, our mountains, our saguaros, our tortillas! he wanted me to say. After finally convincing him that I was too sheepish to do it myself, he pulled out his driver’s license and ran up to the counter. We, too, are from this place! This is our Sonoran Desert in the photos on the walls! This is our food on your burner!
The woman peered up in her black-rimmed glasses and looked quizzically at him, and then at me. She shrugged and flipped a quesadilla over, the cheese oozing out of the sides.
I knew immediately that she’d placed the cheese to close to the edges of the tortilla–one of the first things you learn not to do when you live in the desert and eat quesadillas for lunch with your roommate almost every single day. Cardinal sin #2 was that she then plopped it on a plate and added absolutely nothing to it–no sour cream, no guacamole. And then, she committed sin #3: she served it with a side of tomato sauce.
Ryan pointed excitedly to the saguaro cacti on the walls, their arms anthropomorphically outstretched, and then pointed around the crowded taquería at everything else on the walls. She, in her tattooed arms, thick dreadlocks tied into a bun, and thick black glasses, cocked her head at him, mumbled something in Hungarian, and went back to scraping tortilla dust off the burner.
The Sonoran Desert–and our connection to it–went unnoticed in that little taco shop, nearly a decade of memories worth no more than a shrug from a woman who had no idea what my over-enthusiastic husband was pointing so excitedly over.
We went back to quietly eating our chimichangas, bare as a freshly-made tortilla, with no salsa on the side.
El Rapido Grill & Tequila Bar
Budapest, Kazinczy u. 10, 1075 Hungary
+36 1 783 4627
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. She’s now wishing she took photos of the interior of El Rapido–and of her chimichanga–but she didn’t think about it at the time. (This rarely happens). All photos are of Szimpla Kert, the ruin pub she mentions first in the article. If you have any photos, feel free to send her some!
Special thanks to Viking River Cruises for hosting my recent stay in Budapest on the Passage to Eastern Europe tour. However, lunch was purchased by the author and all opinions are, of course, her own.