Visit Budapest’s communist-era kiosks before they’re history
Sharing a downtown neighborhood with two Michelin-starred restaurants and the Budapest Stock Exchange, a humble cluster of local street-food vendors and other booth-based businesses perseveres at a living-relic subway station from Hungary’s communist era. District V’s gentrified lanes surround the Arany János Street M3 metro stop, which appears hardly changed since it opened in the mid-1970s, complete with its collection of cramped kiosks similar to other urban transport hubs across the Eastern bloc. Alas, this city-center bazaar will soon be renovated – travel back in time here while you can.
Spread in a grid between St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Danube, central Pest’s historic Lipótváros neighborhood contains some of the city’s priciest real estate, as Budapest’s riverfront business district just happens to draw innumerable sightseers. This area benefited from widespread renovations over the past two decades, and is now full of trendy eateries (including Michelin-starred Borkonyha and Costes Downtown) and cosmopolitan clubs… but time has passed more subtly in the district’s Podmaniczky Frigyes Square, a largely ignored plaza that faithfully serves as a city-center transport hub ever since the Arany János utca M3 metro stop opened here in 1976.
Designed with the unpretentious functionality prevailing in public-works projects of Kremlin-controlled countries during Soviet times, the subway station is little more than a rectangular-ish container for the escalator to the underground platform, which also provides space for a few tiny kiosks to operate amid the amply paved surface area. The colorful bite-size enterprises here provide local character to Podmaniczky Frigyes Square, an urban island of anachronistic transit ringed by sparking wires powering the plaza’s slow swirl of red trolleybuses; it’s a scene common in outer-Budapest transport hubs, but most inner-city metro stops were modernized in recent years – and soon this one will enter the 21st century, too.
An extensive renovation of the entire M3 metro line – the city’s longest underground, running north-south across most of Pest – is well under way; refurbished subway cars already run along the rusty tracks, and now the rail network itself and all of its stations are being upgraded, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before the Arany János Street stop is razed and rebuilt.
The M3’s dilapidated condition certainly requires repair, and Podmaniczky Frigyes Square is currently less than welcoming thanks to its decades of neglect and sprawling concrete (although we hope the renovation plans preserve the neat little dome-topped statue of Podmaniczky, a 19th-century Magyar writer and statesman), but we can’t help but wonder about the fate of the plucky independent businesses operating in the booths here, where they could stake a tiny claim in capitalism’s rocky terrain. Their goods are more diverse than most would think, and will be missed by many.
Budapest’s Arany János metro-stop emporium features a bijou boutique of diverse garments from the Far East displayed alfresco year-round under quaint handwritten signage, similarly seen amid most clumps of tinny booths commonly found beside city-outskirts public-transport centers from Bucharest to Bratislava to Tallinn; predictably, another trader buys and sells an exotic array of pre-owned cell phones.
The most popular ventures here are the teeny street-food stands where customers actually have to eat on the street, because there is barely enough room indoors for the vendors to work. These include the requisite pastry counter for morning commuters and equally important gyros booth and burger stand for late-night drunkards; they all seem intriguing based on the flashy displays covering every inch of their wee façades.
There are a few experimental street-food vendors getting creative here – Budapest’s Kolbice purveyors of delicious “sausage cones” scored a prime corner location among the Arany János metro-stop kiosks. The Pöriző stand serves Hungarian stews folded inside palacsinta crepe-style pancakes, and a few spaces down, the mysterious Choco Kebab stand offers a dessert variation of the Middle Eastern handheld meal, featuring ingredients like Nutella, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce. (Choco Kebab only seems to be open late at night, perhaps because that’s when potential customers are most likely to feel spirited enough to try these peculiar confections.)
However, Retró Lángos büfé is by far the most beloved kiosk of Podmaniczky Frigyes Square, and with good reason – adorned with charming patterns of Hungarian folk art, this specialty stand serves the national street food of perfectly crispy deep-fried-dough delights slathered with all kinds of toppings. While garlic butter, sour cream, and shredded cheese are the most common additions, lángos ingredients here include smoked chicken breast, feta cheese, and the bacon, cheese, and red onion found atop the hearty “Magyaros” version. Local crowds continually feast at Retró Lángos büfé day and night, evidenced by the multiple picnic tables kept outside the booth even in the winter cold.
What will happen to the businesses operating at the Arany János metro stop when M3 renovation work begins in the city center, expected to begin in 2019? We don’t know, but it will be kinda sad to see these industrious little kiosk enterprises go; in fact, for numerous hungry night owls who stagger here for lángos after partying at the nearby Toldi Klub, to soon only find a construction site, it’ll be a tragedy. However, for at least another year, we should be able to visit the Podmaniczky Frigyes Square booths for a trip back to the era when street food wasn’t a hip culinary genre, but a proletarian pleasure.