For most of this century, Manhattan’s Yorkville harbored a sizable Hungarian population. Their coffeehouses, butcher shops, and restaurants were anchored by Paprika Weiss, a store highlighting the Magyar obsession, available in mild, medium, and hot strengths. The scarlet-powder purveyor is now a diner, and old restaurants like Csarda and the Red Tulip have vanished, leaving Mocca the area’s sole Hungarian eatery. The tin ceiling, tile floor, and rickety furniture time-warp you to an earlier decade, and the average age of the diners— seemingly around 80— will make you feel young again. Of the ethnographic geegaws on the walls, only a well-used leather whip and
a pair of fur canteens belie the staid demeanor of the patrons.
I won’t go into the $6.45 luncheon special, a belt-busting four-courser that finishes with coffee and a rich dessert. But the $13.95 dinner is also one of the city’s great meal deals. It begins with an amuse-gueule of paprika-dusted cucumber salad and liptauer, an irresistible bread spread of cream cheese and butter whipped with paprika. Next comes a choice of appetizers, of which the best are pork ribs crusted with paprika and slow-roasted into oblivion, so the meat shatters into
delicious shards, and a pickled herring in cream sauce as good as any I’ve tasted. (Skip the fried cauliflower, even if you think it might be good for you.)
The 20 main courses present a nearly insurmountable dilemma. First eliminate the schnitzels— though nicely cooked, they’re not the smooth kind of veal people dream about. Also avoid the interesting-sounding veal knuckle, a flattened, breaded mass of glistening gray gelatin. Choose instead the twin cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, pork, and veal, smothered in sauerkraut, and unexpectedly bursting with flavor. Chicken paprikas is a pink creamy bore, but its darker cousin beef goulash is a triumph. Sharing the plate with nokedli, miniature dumplings traditionally nipped off into boiling water with a flick of the thumb, the big beef chunks rest in a gravy dark as Mexican mole, a far cry from the sour-cream renditions found in East Village Polish joints.
Despite the splendor of the goulash, most of the plates that came hurrying by on a recent Saturday evening were laden with roast duck, the signature dish of the Hungarian bourgeoisie. Like the ribs, its flavor is concentrated to confit-like intensity. But the best thing on the menu is gypsy roast, a wild ride of a dish featuring two long-boned pork chops cooked in tons of garlic and paprika, and deglazed with a puckering squirt of vinegar. Alone among the entrees, these chops showcase the raunchier uses of paprika, not as a mellowing agent, but as a spicy kick in the pants. Brought to Eastern Europe by Ottoman soldiers returning from India in the 18th century, paprika is really a type of chile powder, but since 1945 the market has been sadly dominated by a sweet form that has a sunny flavor but little heat.
In contrast to other East Side eateries, there are good wines priced under $20. In fact, all the bottles cost $15.50. Most commendable is Egri Bikaver, “bull’s blood of Eger,” a dry red long on brash flavor, and perfect with the pork chops. The best dessert is palacsinta, sweet crepes with a choice of fillings, of which walnuts was a surprise favorite. It may be the only thing you eat at Mocca that doesn’t contain paprika.