Cafe Marika

2011 J Street | Sacramento, California

Every culture’s cuisine has its signature ingredient. For the Italians, it’s garlic. The French put burre (butter) on almost everything. Mexican food just wouldn’t be authentic without chilies. Would a good Thai meal be the same without coconut milk? For Hungarian food, dishes just don’t hit the spot without that smoky red spice called paprika.

Although most Americans probably only know paprika as that “red stuff” on top of the haute hors d’ouvre deviled eggs, paprika actually has flavor. Paprika—derived from various dried and ground peppers—offers a complex flavor as well as a gorgeous color to your favorite foods.
Not only is paprika a pretty addition to the presentation of many delectable dishes, it’s available in sweet, smoky, mild and spicy varieties. But, like many a regional/cultural cuisine, paprika is important to Hungarian cuisine that stars meaty stews, handmade gnocchi-like pasta (spaetzel) and sour cream-a-licious sauces. And, hot ‘n’ spicy paprika can really help heat things up.
So, in response to the recently declining degrees of the greater Sacramento area, I set out in search of some spicy paprika to warm me up. The foggy winteriness of last Thursday was the ideal opportunity to visit Cafe Marika on J Street in the heart of Midtown.

I’ve walked past this hole-in-the-wall restaurant during many a Second Saturday promenade and peered in to see the little place packed with diners. Each time, I made plans on my mental calendar to return—I was excited to actually experience Hungarian cuisine.

When I entered the cafe, the mom and pop of the shop welcomed me and invited me to seat myself. I was oddly delighted with the Old World dusty charm that only your grandparents’ house seems to have. With lovely symphony music and conversations of travel setting the scene, the inside of Cafe Marika felt like being in another country.

The lunch menu offered seven options at $7.25 each. Being the smart girl that I am, I chose the combo plate to taste both the old standard Hungarian goulash and the chicken paprikash. To accompany my assiette of poultry, meat and paprika, I couldn’t resist trying the Egri Bikavér—or “Bull’s Blood,” Hungary’s best-known red wine.

The stewed dishes are made fresh daily (believe me, you can taste it); my dish was delivered promptly and accompanied with white bread and butter. The paprika-colored plate of half flavorful-pork-goulash-over-rice, half comforting-chicken-over-spaetzel was nicely garnished with bright purple pickled cabbage.

Both the pork and chicken were wonderfully tender; the former seasoned with a richer, spicier paprika and the latter seasoned with a milder one. If I had a complaint about my meal, it would have been that the chicken could have used more flavor. But, hey, if you’re afraid of bold flavors (it happens), there’s a dish here that you’ll like.

My favorite part of the meal was the cabbage. It had that lovely rubbery, crunchy quality that makes good cabbage dishes so spectacular. Co-owner Eva openly shared with me that Cafe Marika’s pickled cabbage is marinated, but never cooked. Ah ha! Brilliant.

Cafe Marika does not offer the kind of trendy food that you think to crave. Instead, you actually feel satisfied with your meal. I ate my whole meal, and even though I didn’t need to eat the whole thing, I didn’t feel stuffed or bloated when I finished it all.

During the hour-and-a-half I spent in Cafe Marika, only three other customers came in. But, they all knew owners Louie and Eva by name; and have for years. I chatted with the owners a while and they shared recipes with me. Louie even grabbed spices off the shelves for me to smell. I couldn’t resist and grabbed a piece of homemade apple strudel to go for just $2.50. That’s cheaper than Starbucks pastries.

Cafe Marika serves lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and dinner is only Thursday through Saturday nights from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eva said that Cafe Marika has limited hours because there was no reason to be open if they had so few customers. That logic makes sense, but what doesn’t is why they have so few customers. The food is good and moderately priced. It’s the type of local restaurant that all true Sacramentans should visit to enjoy some “Bull’s Blood” and paprika with friends. Its no-frills atmosphere will quickly make it your neighborhood spot.

As Louie said, “We [Cafe Marika] are not a commercial business. We are more like coming to my house.”