Jane Stern: Thank goodness for Fridays at Hungarian Bistro

Photo of Jane Stern

Frequent readers of this column will know that I am a lousy navigator. Even with a map, a compass and a GPS I usually drive in circles, muttering curses. Sometimes it takes me two trips to locate a place.

I have also learned the hard way that one should NEVER ask directions, not from cops, gas station attendants or other people who look official or normal. They are not who they pretend to be, they are demon aliens in uniforms. Asking for directions is a futile thing. These aliens will stare at you with faux understanding, maybe even draw you a little map and you will still wind up on an ocean beach, a crack house, a large hole in the ground or worse.

I have written about getting lost before, but I am moved to tell you of a very recent experience in Fairfield now that Drs. Tanquery and Tonic have sorted me out. The frustration in finding the place translated into one of the best meals of my life.

First a brief history lesson. Around World War II, Norwalk, Fairfield and Bridgeport had an enormous Hungarian population. The armament plants, factories and mills were staffed heavily with Hungarian men and women. All three towns had a rich Magyar cultural life, often revolving around the church, social clubs and festivals.

Sadly there is virtually nothing left of this rich immigrant culture. You can drive for blocks and never see cafes selling the wonderful foods of Hungary, the redolent spices of this cuisine, or the brightly colored peasant blouses streaming with ribbons worn for festivals.

I know this because I am Hungarian by lineage and I grew up on this amazing food on Second Avenue in New York City. As in Fairfield County, there is little left of the culture, so when I heard of a great Hungarian place to eat in Fairfield I went searching.

The restaurant is called Hungarian Bistro and is located behind a church. There is a street address and a Facebook page. Normally, this would make things easy, but by the time I found Hungarian Bistro, I was a wrung out like a sponge and mute with frustration. If it had not been Hungarian food, I would have given up and moved on.

Let me start by saying not only is this restaurant almost impossible to find, but it is open exactly one day a week. Yes, you read this right. It is open on Fridays and that is that. The address given on the website is of no help as nothing is numbered and the name of the church is not specified. I heard it was “in a church” but there are many churches on Kings Highway and none have posted numbers or signage saying Hungarian Bistro. I drove from church to church, asking the resident demon aliens and they pretended no one knew what I was talking about.

I finally found an old church that looked like it might be a possibility. There were four skinny driveways in and out of the church and some did not look wide enough for a car. At this point I did not care if I drove over a lawn. There were no signs or numbers, and a city repair crew had set up repair obstacles on the road, making street parking an impossibility, so I took one of the skinny unmarked driveways and hoped there were no sinkholes.

In back of the church was a building called Calvin Hall, which looked promising, but did not have a restaurant. I parked and wandered behind the church and snooped around until I found a door cracked open and was hit square in the face by the heavenly smell of my favorite dish, chicken paprikash, a succulent poultry stew redolent of paprika and sour cream.

I walked through the unmarked door and there was a large banquet room with festive tablecloths. There was Hungarian folk art, Hungarian music played discreetly and the blonde waitress greeted me effusively: “Are uou Hungarian?” Then she welcomed me like a long lost family member. Without asking, she brought me a large glass of ice water and then handed me a little paper menu with the day’s specials.

As bad as I am with directions I am even worse with transcribing the Hungarian language. Hungarian is notorious for its difficulty (spoken and written) so I am not even going to try. I will tell you the English names for what was on the menu.

The soup of the day was something, a pork goulash. Three men at the table next to me were eating it from the largest soup bowls I have ever seen. It could easily be a main course. There were three entrees: Chicken breast in a cream sauce with jasmine rice, meatballs in a rich tomato sauce with a boiled potato and a potato gratin with smoked sausage, hard-boiled egg and sour cream. I ordered all three, plus the soup, every one a winner: they were pure Hungarian classics made by a practiced hand. The most memorable dish was the potato gratin; if it is on the menu you must order it. This is my “soul food.” I have eaten it all my life and I have never had better.

For dessert there was a simple sponge roll with apricot jam, made from scratch, an enormous and generous portion.

Yes, Hungarian Bistro is almost impossible to find, yes it is open for one meal a day once a week, it is cash only, but it is worth it. Pretend you are Indiana Jones or the people who unearthed King Tut’s tomb. Pretend you are on a treasure hunt, because you are. The food you will be served when you find the magic spot is pure gold. Instead of “bon appetit,” “we” say in Hungarian, “Jo Etvagyat.”

Hungarian Bistro

901 Kings Highway, Fairfield


Restaurant columnist Jane Stern co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.