Few menus manage to hamstring me with indecision the way that Balaton's does. Having to choose between dishes like creamy chicken paprikash and the world's best weinerschnitzel is like deciding who gets the final rose. It feels so permanent.
For decades, my father ran an auto parts store on Buckeye Road, and every single week he and a colleague would lunch at a tiny Hungarian restaurant down the road. He described the exotic flavors of Székely goulash in a way that made the dish sound otherworldly. When we were lucky enough to join him at that squat brick building for lunch, my brothers and I would order only one thing: the weinerschnitzel sandwich. It's funny to even call it a sandwich because, like a string bikini, the bread slices only managed to cover a sliver of the meat, which overshot its borders by a country mile.
A millennium later and nothing has changed except the address. After more than 30 years down the hill, Balaton relocated to its present home at Shaker Square, where it just breezed past its 20th anniversary at that spot. Walking into the sunny storefront feels exactly like walking into an Eastern European cafe, where sturdy wooden furniture, family photos, embroidered textiles and colorful ceramics combine to create a homey Old World vibe. The service is pleasant and unhurried if not effusively affable.
At Balaton, a steady drumbeat emanates from the kitchen with reliable consistency. Bang, bang, bang. That's the sound of veal cutlets being pounded into carpaccio-thin leaves, which get breaded and fried until puffy, craggy, golden and crisp. They arrive in the form of schnitzel "sandwiches" ($11.95) or as an entree. Know going in that Balaton is like Alice in Wonderland, where "small" ($17.95) is large and "regular" ($24.95) is anything but. When servers use wheeled carts to deliver food to tables, you know they mean business.
Until you've had paprikash sauce-covered spaetzle, you don't know the meaning of comfort food. The squiggly, misshapen dumplings are the perfect sauce-delivery vehicle for the sweet, velvety gravy that coats the bone-in white and dark meat chicken ($15.95). Versions made with chicken livers or veal are also available. Balaton's stuffed cabbage ($15.95) will make a convert of even the biggest cynic. Tidy little bundles are wrapped in cabbage that still has some fight to it, and its pleasant tang makes a nice foil to the savory beef and pork filling, which is more meat than rice. Of course, there's plenty of gravy.
Balaton's stews and goulashes are hearty, comforting and layered with flavor. The lecsó stew ($15.95) is loaded with peppers and onions, capped with a spiral-sliced smoked sausage, and paired with a mountain of mashed potatoes, rice or dumplings. The Székely goulash ($15.95) is a beguiling and deeply spiced brew of tender pork, sauerkraut and thick sour cream. If you don't think you like sauerkraut, give this dish a try. All entrees include bread and butter, salad, sides like spaetzle, and applesauce.
Groups or couples who want to sample more than a few items should consider one of two platters that combine dishes like paprikash, weinerschnitzel, stuffed cabbage, smoked sausage and sides. Prepare to be gobsmacked by the quantity of food that gets wheeled over and deposited in front of you. The good news is that pretty much all of the items reheat well.
On a recent visit we ordered a few starters that were new to us — likely because it's nearly impossible to sidestep the lacy potato pancakes ($8.95) that resemble fine filigree. One was a fry bread ($6.50) that was the size of a pizza crust. You rip off pieces of the hot, airy dough and dip them into garlic oil and sour cream. It's an incredible combination. The other was a stuffed crepe ($9.95) that will likely knock the potato pancakes out of the rotation. An eggy crepe is folded around a mixture of ground veal and mushrooms and bathed in a rich paprikash-like gravy. It's decorated, like most dishes, with a tiny Hungarian flag on a toothpick.
To drink there's a small selection of Hungarian wines that include white, red and dessert varieties, presented alongside a few domestic pours and beer. For dessert, there's a tantalizing array of luscious torts, cakes and strudels for those who managed to save some room.
I recently took my father to lunch at Balaton, where he dove into his bowl of Székely goulash like it was 1978. The auto parts store is long gone, but his love for this dish has never waned. It's every bit as good as he remembers, he said, as he wiped a smudge of sour cream from his lip before diving right back in for more.