Day 57: Hungary
My first meal eaten totally alone on the Man Bites World Personal Food Project in Blog Form occurs with not a bang, but a whimper. Plus a healthy dose of frightened confusion. At the suggestion of Domnul Meatball (he is Romanian after all) I am on my way to Otto’s Import Store & Delicatessen in Burbank, California. I drive down a small residential street, wondering if I’m headed in the wrong direction, before coming upon what looks like a home made ski lodge which happened to sprout out of the ground for no apparent reason and has somehow existed since the beginning of time. I’d like to think that not long after Columbus landed, when the first explorers made their way to California, they trekked into the area that is now Burbank, saw a strange Hungarian sandwich shop, and stopped in for a hoagie.
I park the car and step into the dark, cavernous store whose lights are, for some reason, all off. A surly woman stands stoically behind the counter as a thin older man with a 50s-style-diner chef’s hat walks by and says in a thick Hungarian accent “Look around. It’s free!” All right. I guess I will. I notice the woman follow the man, who I presume to be her husband, into the back room, and I wander through the unlit market, taking pictures with the flash. After just three snaps the woman pops in from around a corner. “No pictures.”
“I can’t take pictures?” I ask.
“Really?” I respond, more than a little surprised.
I put the camera away and continue to browse as the lights suddenly come to life. Hungarian paprika, imported wines and other interesting Hungarian goods line the aisles. I look for another minute before the man, Otto, argues in Hungarian with his wife(I’m now quite sure that’s what she is) for a moment, then walks up to me. “No pictures,” he says, then mumbles something fast and incomprehensible. I don’t want to intrude so I just nod and agree. “Are you going to buy something?” he asks, “Because if you are, you had better do it soon. We are going to close soon to go to the post office.” I remember from reading their hilarious website that they export just about everything in the store, including their house made meats, and assume it must be for that. I tell him that I’m going to buy a sandwich, but notice the ten dollar minimum on credit cards, so I pick out a bottle of Hungarian wine. I ask what would be a typical Hungarian food and he quickly points to sandwich called “Otto’s Special”. With three size options, I opt for the medium, then he looks at my wine, takes the bottle and goes back to grab another one instead, which he insists is much better. There is no price on it, but I decide to just go with it. “This is from my home town of Dörgicse. It’s on sale.” Then he pauses for a moment and asks “Are you from Hungary?” I assure him that I’m not, but mention that this store was recommended to me by a Romanian, to which he responds “We have a lot of Romanians who come in here. I was just in Romania. The people were very nice.” I hand him my credit card, he smiles, points to his wife, and says “She does plastic. I do cash.” She finishes wrapping up my sandwich, looks at me with an untrusting eye, then handles the transaction.
I sit at a table out front and take my sandwich out of its bag. From the outside, it looks like a pretty basic ham and cheese sandwich on a french roll. But what makes this thing beautiful is the smoked bacon, stacked on with no concern for health whatsoever. The whole thing really is pretty darn delicious. I take pictures once I’m outside, but find myself hiding the camera once Otto’s leary wife comes outside to drag the trash cans in from the street. So what did this particular adventure prove? That a bizarre experience and a scary woman always gets trumped by the ability to make good food. You could sneak up behind me in the streets and sucker punch me in the kidneys if you want, but if you hand me a really good sandwich afterward, it’s all pretty much forgotten. (For the record, if anyone actually takes me up on that proposition, it had better be a damn good sandwich. Otherwise you’ve got another thing coming.)
Later that night, over a non-Hungarian dinner of spaghetti squash and a vegetable marinara, GirlfriendBites and I crack the bottle of Hungarian wine and find that old man Otto was right about his hometown vintners. The potent Viviaamus Linden Leaf tokaj white wine, described on the bottle as “sweet late harvest” is very enjoyable and a nice close to the night. A strange and totally unique day, to be sure, but isn’t that what this is all about in the first place? As long as I don’t wake up tomorrow to find that Otto’s wife snuck some mysterious form of Hungarian deadly nightshade into my sandwich, I’d have to call the whole endeavor a roaring success.
Otto’s Import Store & Delicatessen
2320 W Clark Ave
Burbank, CA 91506
Food Breakdown: 1 sandwich, 1 bottle of wine
Distance From My House: 22.4 miles