The media and the local government have made much of downtown Hollywood's "renaissance." They claim it's a nouveau world out there, with all sorts of chic folk roaming the gentrified Harrison Street and Young Circle, looking for good, stylish eats and places to swing. If you're not mod, you're meat loaf, they say. And, if that's the case, don't bother going to Hollywood.
The reality is, don't bother listening. Just a few blocks north of the supposed hubbub, the Old World is still in business. South Floridians with a sense of tradition can bet on the matches at Dania Jai-alai, then head over to Zinkler's Bavarian Village in the east part of Hollywood for Wiener schnitzel served by waitresses in full Alpine regalia. Or they can watch the greyhounds sprint at the nearby dog track and follow the races up with glasses of Bull's Blood, a Hungarian red wine named for its strength, at Goulash Charda.
Stuffed with souvenirs from the old country, Goulash Charda looks as if it's been around forever. In reality the 60-seat Hungarian restaurant, formerly the site of a Yugoslavian nightclub, is only a couple of months old. But it has centuries of history behind it. And proprietor Scilerd Helfy, originally from Hungary, is striving for an authentic experience. More often than not, he succeeds. With its white tablecloths embroidered with black-and-red borders, shelves of trinkets, dark carpet, and low ceilings, the restaurant offers a lodgelike ambiance familiar to Eastern Europeans but foreign to denizens of the subtropics. Restless trendwatchers would do well to pay Goulash Charda a visit, if only to gain a refreshing perspective.
Or if they don't feel like speaking to each other. Guests often have to compete with the cimbalom, a stringed instrument that's something of a cross between a harpsichord and a xylophone. Played with mallets, it looks like a blackjack table when the top is down but sounds more like a slot machine. The music begins every night at 6 p.m. and is almost always performed by the cimbalom player and a violinist. At times the duets sound like battles, or an orchestra tuning up. Other times the cimbalom player puts down his mallets and picks up a guitar so that he and the violinist can serenade individual tables as patrons down Chef Laszlo Balla's fragrant, ground veal-and-beef-stuffed cabbage.
Aside from competing with the music, the hardest task at Goulash Charda is deciding what to eat. The restaurant offers a variety of Hungarian specialties, with some Austrian, German, Gypsy, and Russian dishes thrown into the mix. Some items, like the beef goulash (a hearty stew) or paprikas csirke (slow-cooked chicken in a sour cream-paprika sauce) may sound -- and taste -- familiar. We sampled the smooth and slightly piquant paprika sauce over an appetizer of hortobagyi, tender crepes filled with ground beef and pork. Jewish-style chicken matzo ball soup, though slightly greasy and flavorless (and reminiscent of my grandmother's, may she forgive me), featured a big, fluffy matzo ball and egg noodles floating in the broth. If "soup is the soul of Hungarian cuisine," as Susan Derecskey, author of The Hungarian Cookbook, writes, then Goulash Charda may want to do a bit of soul-searching when it comes to this item.
Many dishes, while customary to Hungarians, challenge the American palate. It's best to scan the menu carefully to avoid ordering something ultimately unappealing. "Veal brain roses" speaks for itself. But an entree called "smart cutlet" is trickier. It's defined as a breaded veal cutlet, and the small print underneath says the veal is filled with calf brains (hence the "smart"). If that doesn't sound appealing, try the Bryndza cordon bleu, a breaded veal cutlet filled with sheep's-milk cheese and ham. Still not satisfied? How about the Kedvessy filet mignon, described as foie gras naturale -- or, in layman's terms, liver.
Even if you think you know what something is, ask the servers; they're fairly forthcoming. Just don't wait until you've already tried something strange to find out what it is. A friend of mine freaked when the waitress told him the sausage he'd just bitten into was cow's tongue. The tongue was delicious, by the way, smoky and succulent, inspiring a host of stupid jokes about tongues, which I won't repeat. We didn't expect the delicacy to be part of the Hungarian sampler platter, which comes with dry sausage, salami, smoked meats, cheese slices, and pate de foie gras, according to the menu. Aside from the tongue, our platter provided only some excellent sausage and salami.
One particularly adventurous dish is the vadas entree. A pair of venison medallions, described as "deer filet mignon" on the menu, had been marinated for two weeks in red wine and mustard, then braised and served with a minced vegetable sauce. The meat was tangy, not gamey at all, but the texture was too well-done throughout. Bread dumplings, as light as the matzo ball, accompanied the vadas. A main course of beef stroganoff featured strips of beef filet mignon. The juicy tidbits were smothered in a sour cream sauce that had been spiked with julienne dill pickle to give it a terrific signature flavor. The minute rice that came with it, however, was lumpy and stale.
The most appealing main course, solet, reminded me of cassoulet with duck confit, my favorite French dish. White beans were baked with pearl barley and egg to form a rich, buttery casserole. The dish is usually made with goose, but a duck leg and thigh, crisp outside and juicy inside, substituted as a garnish, adding dimension to the beans. Fantastic.
Entrees are served with chicken soup, soup of the day (in our case, a cream of vegetable, much like the sauce that dressed the venison), or cucumber salad cured in sour cream. Homemade potato bread and Liptauer, a cheese spread spiced with onions and paprika, are complimentary. By the time your party has put away a few appetizers and main courses, there isn't much room left for more. In fact our waiter, thinking we'd ordered too much food, decided not to bring out the stuffed cabbage starter we wanted. I certainly appreciate the fact that he was looking after our interests, but get real -- it's easy to take home leftovers.
We insisted he bring the dish, and though afterward we were as stuffed as the cabbage, it didn't stop the four of us from ordering a tableful of home-baked desserts. Forget the French. Austro-Hungarian sweets are some of the best in the world, as evidenced by the selection in the deli case at the restaurant's entrance. A custard-filled napoleon and Dobos torta, a caramelized layer cake named after a famous Hungarian pastry chef, were especially satisfying.
Owner Helfy ran a Hungarian specialty shop called La Paprika in Miami-Dade's Normandy Isle for four years, so it's no wonder the quality of the food is good. But this first-time restaurateur surprised me with the value of his offerings. Others apparently agree. On a weeknight the restaurant was so full we had to make a reservation.
Hungarian isn't the most common cuisine here in the States, but any Eastern European will tell you it's one of the most sophisticated. Though Goulash Charda isn't located in the so-called hip part of Hollywood, it also isn't an eatery that will disappear when the latest trends do.
Goulash Charda. 2215 N. Federal Hwy., Hollywood, 954-926-3355. Lunch and dinner daily from noon to 11 p.m.
Jewish-style chicken soup
Hungarian sampler platter