When Steven and Emerencia Banai fled Soviet-controlled Hungary for the United States in 1956, they didn’t speak a word of English but still managed to live the American Dream.
The couple ran the Recovery Room, a shot-and-a-beer bar on Pittsburgh’s North Side, for decades. Although they died — within nine days of each other — in 2015, their legacy lives on through Huszár, a new incarnation of the old business.
Now operated by the Banai’s daughter, Judy Torma and her husband Michael, the tavern specializes in authentic, Hungarian cuisine, including goulash, paprikash, smoked meats and cheeses, and dessert recipes that originated in pastry shops along the banks of the Danube River.
While a bit of a culinary secret on this side of the Atlantic, Hungarian grub is in high demand among Europeans, says Judy Torma.
“Items on the menu,” she says, “are what our ancestors were eating 200 years ago.”
Recently, the eatery hired three chefs direct from Hungary who are adding a modern flair to traditional dishes and serving up classic comfort foods that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Péter Gurbács, a European Union-certified master chef and native of the Banai’s hometown of Pápa in western Hungary, will lead the staff. The kitchen crew also includes EU-certified master pastry chef Karoly Schmidt and sous chef Geza Ambrus.
Welcome them to town: They have been granted cultural exchange visas that allow them to practice their craft in Pittsburgh for the next year or so. They currently reside in the Tormas’ Troy Hill home.
Thanks to their arrival, visitors to the Deutschtown tavern on E. North Avenue can try new offerings such as a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, a savory fried dough served with a garlic wash called lángos, and sour cherry soup that can be eaten cold or at room temperature.
On May 19 from 4 to 8 p.m., Huszár will host a traditional bacon roast, known in the old country as Szalonna Sutes. Using wooden skewers, guests cook slab bacon over fire pits set up in the restaurant’s adjacent parking lot and then pair the meat with fresh sourdough bread, green onions, peppers and tomatoes.
Tickets are $35 per person, and include a shot of Hungarian brandy, one bottle of Karlovačko beer, desserts and live music. Reservations can be made by calling 412-322-8795.
And while dieters may balk at the high-calorie content of most entrees, the Tormas believe the fare provides nourishment for the soul, and that’s worth a cheat day every now and then.
When Judy Torma sees people enjoying recipes that her mother — a gifted cook who worked for a catering company in Green Tree that fed former President George H.W. Bush — often made, she can’t help but smile.
In fact, the restaurant is more than a labor of love, it is literally a recovery room for her broken heart.
“I could’ve sold the bar and the liquor license, but I felt like I wasn’t done with this story,” she says, wiping away tears. “I needed a project. This was a segue from being sad.”
Wearing a Hungarian flag upon her chest, Judy Torma explains how, as a youngster, she rejected her roots. When she was 16, she took a trip to her parents’ tiny village — a place they had not laid eyes on in 17 years — and her perspective changed. She fell in love with the culture that birthed stars such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Bela Lugosi, and she learned to appreciate the struggle her mom and dad endured to make a better life for her and her two brothers.
Steven Banai was an American POW during World War II and Judy’s grandfather was a Huszár, a member of the prestigious Hungarian light cavalry formed during the 15th century.
She’s been back more than 50 times since 1973. It’s where she met her husband, a native Hungarian. It’s where she studied folk dancing and anthropology. It’s where she first discovered the gastronomical wonders that she is replicating in Pittsburgh.