Cheap Eats: Palacsinta
Parking lot pop-up serves Hungarian home cooking, impressive crepe-flipping
Drive through Candler Park on McLendon Avenue on a weekend morning or afternoon, and you may spot some curious hubbub in the parking lot of the Gilded Angel art gallery: a very small food stand (perhaps what we might call a "pop-up" in modern parlance), with patrons sitting at tables bedecked in rather ornate red cloth, waiting and watching as one woman flips crepes in the air with the dexterity and grace of a professional juggler. In fact, one could argue that juggling is exactly what Maria Nagy, chef and proprietor of Palacsinta, does best.
ONE-WOMAN SHOW: Armed merely with a griddle, a few cooking implements, and a cooler stowed away in a closet-size back nook of the art gallery several yards away, Nagy is constantly bustling about: whisking, pouring, hustling back and forth from her tiny cold storage unit to her crammed cooktop setup, and sending her homemade Hungarian crepes somersaulting in the air with a well-timed flick of the wrist. Palacsinta may have a kitchen that's barely a notch above camping, but Nagy knows how to make do. She's been doing it for four years, after all: loading up her minivan with prepped ingredients and baked goods, driving down from the north suburbs, and camping out at 1404 McLendon Ave. until the goods run out.
CREPE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT: Palacsintak, the pancake-like Hungarian crepes after which Nagy's venture is named, are tasty vehicles for a myriad of fillings, savory or sweet. While Nagy does adapt some of her offerings to appeal to Western palates (i.e., yes, there's a Nutella crepe), her menu is for the most part quite traditional: savory crepes ($6) stuffed with juicy, flavorful chicken paprikash; dessert crepes ($4) filled with homemade lemon curd, farmer's cheese, or apricot. In addition to the crepes, Nagy also trucks down batches of fresh-baked delicacies such as poppy seed pastries and traditional, crescent-shaped yeast rolls called kifli. On the savory side of the menu, I tried the Popeye crepe, a variation made with spinach-based batter, filled with a creamy tzatziki-like dill sauce, and topped with salty feta chunks — and, of course, a hearty dousing of Hungarian paprika. Nagy also whipped up one of her new dessert offerings, one stuffed with a sweet, creamy chestnut purée. Topped with three small mountains of whipped cream and a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar, it was the most decadent dessert I've enjoyed while dining in a parking lot.
STREET STYLE: Nagy has regular customers who know her by name, and she also has well-traveled clientele who come to her in search of pastries or dishes like the ones they had while vacationing in Budapest. When I asked her if Palacsinta would ever become a brick-and-mortar bakery, she chuckled. Nope, this food stand plans to keep things simple: authentic Hungarian food, genuine hospitality, and the most legit home cooking you can find outside a grandmother's kitchen. After all, who needs fancy decor or plush seating when you can have generations-old Hungarian recipes cooked right in front of you?