Much as I’ve grown to love Hungarian food, I began to hunger for something different around a year or so ago. Budapest has many great culinary delights, but a wide choice of authentic ethnic restaurants is not one of them.
I’m a great fan of good Chinese food especially but none of the restaurants I’ve seen on my wanderings around Budapest look remotely promising. And there are few things worse than bad Chinese food.
So, when a Chinese friend of mine and her boyfriend came to visit from London earlier this year, the last thing in the world on my mind was taking her to a Chinese restaurant. I wish I’d known then about the Monori Center out in Kőbánya, about 30 minutes by bus from Deák Ferenc tér.
Kőbánya is Budapest’s District X – which sounds like it should be the title of a 1940s film noir or a sci-fi movie set in a dystopian future. Believe me, Kőbánya would make the perfect location.
If I hadn’t become obsessed by the desire to eat real, good Chinese food, there’s no way I would have taken the number nine bus out to Kőbánya in the eastern part of the city. Apart from the delights that awaited me at the end of my journey, I’m glad I did.
I saw a whole different side of Budapest. The bus took me past abandoned factories, battered warehouses and over patches of cobbled street; the scar tissue of the past. I have no idea what it’s actually like to live in these stubbed out streets or drab tower blocks. I’m also not saying that they’re any more authentic than other neighborhoods, but this was the kind of journey into the city’s ripped underside that I love.
If I was making a movie set in Budapest, I couldn’t think of anywhere better for a lowlife car chase.
There are actually two Chinatowns in Budapest. Neither is marked by the ornate pagoda-gateways and hanging lanterns that signpost the entrance to a tourist-savvy Chinatown like the one in Central London, so you need to keep your eyes open.
I followed a Chinese dude off the bus when it stopped at what looked like a giant factory on Kőbánya utca and I started to see grubby ice-cream colored storefronts with Chinese lettering. This was Józsefvárosi Piac (Josephtown Market, also called Euro Square). The wrong Chinatown.
Don’t get me wrong. There may well have been great restaurants inside the vast edifice – a former locomotive factory, it turns out. But I was on my way to the Monori Center and this wasn’t it.
If you follow my lead out to the Monori Center you need to get off the number nine at Kőbánya alsó vasútállomás. Trust me, even though you’ll be next to a large patch of waste ground in what looks like the middle of nowhere, you’re in the right place. At least one Chinese-looking person will get off the bus with you.
Follow them – discreetly, of course – and you should end up in the Monori Center. If you’re deeply unlucky and there are no Chinese people around, walk back down Kőbánya street and turn left when you get to Monori utca. Opposite the fantastically-named Milky Way hotel is HeHe, the restaurant I suggest you try.
HeHe is everything I hoped a Chinese restaurant at Monori Center would be. From the outside, it’s nothing special. Inside, it’s scruffy and you might say refreshingly unpretentious. Pride of place on the counter was taken up by a plate of slices of smoked pig head.
There was one of those gold waving cats. No Chinese restaurant or store is complete without a Maneki Neko or “beckoning cat”, waving good fortune into the establishment for its owners. Beckoning cats were originally Japanese. I wonder if that’s what inspired Hello Kitty.
It was lunchtime and the restaurant was filled with Chinese people – always a good sign – and a few Hungarians. There were no hipster types around. An excellent sign. I was shown upstairs by a young girl wearing an olive-green face mask that matched her short skirt. That wasn’t such a great sign, but it was certainly intriguing.
The HeHe menu is not large and the pictures of the dishes don’t help very much. I ordered tofu with some kind of black mushroom, and egg rice. The waitress marched off. I half-expected her to reappear with a giant syringe.
As I waited for my food, a man came out of the kitchen carrying a large fishing net with a wooden frame and trotted downstairs. He came back a few minutes later carrying something fishy, alive and writhing inside. The restaurant didn’t have a fish tank, so I have no idea where the monster in the net came from. I was reminded of the last line of Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie “Chinatown”. Jake, the private detective played by Jack Nicholson, is told: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
I didn’t have long to wait for my tofu and rice. It was freshly cooked, steaming and delicious. There was also plenty of it – enough for two people. Given that it cost HUF 2,800 (about EUR 8.60), this was reasonably good value for money. Perhaps not surprisingly, there didn’t appear to be any prices on the menu.
Next time, I’ll get to the HeHe in time to breakfast on congee, hot rice soup served with pork, mushrooms and shredded scallions, and youtiao breadsticks. According to website Offbeat Budapest, they also do a good breakfast at the Hong Kong Bufé on nearby Jegenye utca.
Take the number nine bus to Monori Center from Deák Ferenc or Kálvin tér and remember to get off at Kőbánya alsó vasútállomás. You can also take the 28 tram from Blaha Lujza tér to Mázsa utca.