You woke up groggy from a late night, and by ‘late light,’ we mean one of drinking, perhaps at one of Budapest’s famous dive bars or ruin pubs. You’re hungry but not exactly hungry; it’s more like you need to put something between you and the previous night, something other than sleep. Or, for the healthier reader, perhaps you just completed a hike through the rolling hills around Buda and feel the craving for a decadent hard-earned reward. Or it’s been a day at the park with kids, pets, or just reading in the sun alone, and you hunger for park food. Only one meal perfectly answers the call to all these cravings, and that is of course lángos, Hungary’s version of fried dough.
Due to its heaviness, lángos is a meal best eaten when it has been worked for in one way or another. Dough deep fried (ideally set in the oil upon ordering) brushed with minced garlic and topped with various other fatty delights like smoked cheese, sour cream, and even pörkölt (braised meat stew) lángos is intentionally too much. It is a meal that is an activity in itself, one that best caps off another activity, be it drinking, or exercising or relaxing.
But finding a good lángos in Budapest is not as easy as it used to be. Lángos, like zsíros kenyér (lard and onion on bread) to a lesser degree, is becoming a ‘retro’ frood, something the younger generations are eschewing for lighter or foreign fare. But while many of central Budapest’s lángos stands have closed, it still has a dedicated following and can be found in most market halls, notably Lehel Market and Rákóczi Square Market, as well in the city’s more sizable parks, in particular at Városliget (City Park), where there is a popular lángos stand across from the zoo. But the best lángos, like with most street food, is the lángos that is being sold closest to where you are standing.
To keep lángos relevant to the quickly changing culinary landscape, young chefs have been trying to give it an update. Indeed there is a sit-down lángos restaurant (Lángos Papa) on toney Andrássy Avenue, as well as a popular lángos food truck in Street Food Karavan next to Szimpla Kert that serves a smaller sized piece of dough with more interesting toppings like Hungarian red peppers, turning your lángos into more of a deep fried pizza. Abroad, Hungarian Americans have also tried their hand at modifying the lángos, creating what was for a brief while an internet sensation in the ‘Lángos Burger’ at Brooklyn’s Korzo Burger. (If you are wondering, it’s a burger that deep fries a hamburger patty wrapped in a lángos ‘bun’.)
But lángos is used to seeing transformation. Originally it was cooked over an open fire. The Hungarian word ‘láng’ means ‘flame’, hence the name. But in the end, shouldn’t the humble lángos be worthy in of itself? Most cultures have fried dough in one way or another, from Canada’s beaver tails, to zeppole in Italy or boortsog of Central Asia. Fried dough is universally popular due to its simplicity and the sheer dumbness of its flavor profile. Lángos is a delivery system for fat, pure and simple, and fat is addictive. Addiction never goes out of fashion. It is also a food of the people: in America fried dough is popular at places like carnivals and state fairs, but not so much in chic urban districts. In a city like Budapest, which increasingly wants to be seen as worldly and cosmopolitan, the traditional lángos is finding a diminishing fan base.
But maybe the scarcity of lángos around Budapest is a good thing, as it has been encouraging enterprising chefs to elevate the humble dish. It’s even served in a gussied-up version as a bar snack at a nice restaurant, The Eddy, in Manhattan. Moreover, finding a lángos will become an activity in itself, and an activity that is self-rewarding. The perfect reward for eating an entire langos, not necessarily an easy task by the way, is not another lángos, but a well-deserved nap.