Icon review: The Little Hungarian

The infamous wiener schnitzel served with potatoes and creamed spinach.
The infamous wiener schnitzel served with potatoes and creamed spinach. Photo: Chris Hopkins

708 Glen Huntly Rd Caulfield South, VIC 3162

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Opening hours Tue-Sat 4pm-9pm
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Phone 03 9523 6032

Hungarian food has a longer history in Melbourne than you might think. Take the Newmarket Hotel. Before it got all slick and shiny, it was a rough and ready, goulash-serving St Kilda pub, famous for its regular Thursday Schnitz 'n' Tits nights.

The pub fell victim to gentrification, although the night's still around in various iterations. And so is Elizabeth Csulka, one of Melbourne's original Hungarian chefs. Her restaurant, the Little Hungarian, just celebrated its 13th birthday. But her story starts much earlier.

Csulka came to Australia from Budapest in 1983. She'd been a nurse in Hungary, but she couldn't speak English so instead of a hospital she found herself in the kitchens of Acland Street's legendary Blue Danube. For 13 years, Csulka served up her thick pea soup and crumbed liver to St Kilda's then mostly Eastern European community, who'd split their time between the Danube and its equally legendary neighbour, Scheherazade.

The Little Hungarian has 32 seats.
The Little Hungarian has 32 seats. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Csulka took over the pans at Newmarket Hotel in the mid-1990s, which, at the time, was Melbourne's most famous Hungarian kitchen. Rumour has it her schnitzel was so good that even those customers who'd rather the barmaids kept their tops on would come for it (they'd try to be out by 8pm before the show started). It was also under her reign that the name, Schnitz 'n' Tits, was coined.

After eight years, Csulka opened her own restaurant, the Little Hungarian, and has served her home-style food there ever since. If you're unfamiliar with Hungarian food, know that eating it is a lesson in European history. Its love of preserves and pickles can be traced to its ethnic people's (the Magyars) nomadic roots; Italy's influence, by way of the Neapolitan Princess Beatrice who married Hungary's King Matthias I (circa 1450s), in its use of pasta, some sauces and onion. The Turks brought paprika and stuffed vegetables.

Csulka serves nokedli with her signature Hungarian goulash; a hearty, tender beef stew simmered with paprika and garnished with a dill pickle. It is the definition of comfort food.

Go-to dish: Hungarian goulash with nokedli and dill pickle.
Go-to dish: Hungarian goulash with nokedli and dill pickle. Photo: Chris Hopkins

So is the wiener schnitzel – a thin, juicy, plate-sized piece of veal, its crust golden and puffy, with smashed potatoes, creamed spinach and a lemon quarter – brought to us, in lieu of topless waitresses, by Csulka's 20-something grandson.

The restaurant is open from 4pm six days a week and Csulka, 65, still does most of the cooking. Her customers don't leave her much choice. Most of them have followed her from the Danube and the Newmarket to the Little Hungarian. They bring their kids in early for parmigiana and palacsinta (sweet crepes), and their parents in later for paprikash (a slow-cooked chicken paprika stew) and palinkas (fruit brandies).

Is 13 years long enough for a restaurant to be considered iconic? Strictly speaking, maybe not. But 35 years is plenty for a cook to.

Chicken paprikash (slow-cooked chicken paprika stew).
Chicken paprikash (slow-cooked chicken paprika stew). Photo: Chris Hopkins

Est: 2005

Vibe: Your European grandmother's house.

Go-to Dish: Hungarian goulash ($24.50).