Great deals on hearty Hungarian-leaning pub grub are cooked by an experienced butcher-chef
High-quality ingredients don't have to travel far to make it into the kitchen of a talented chef who explores a locally underserved cuisine and is adept at charcuterie. So boutique-style Ohio groceries such as Anderson Farms heritage pork, Laurel Valley Creamery cheeses, Gerber chickens and Dan the Baker's breads are all in the house. Not in the house: any food item that costs more than $12 or anything even remotely fancy in the way of ambience.
The house in question is Tatoheads Public House, which has been home to chef Dan Varga and his Hungarian Butcher operation since April.
Tatoheads is a South Side neighborhood saloon with a concrete floor, utilitarian tables and a stage for live music that is usually free and often interesting. The roomy, open space also accommodates a chalkboard advertising 16 beers, about half brewed in Ohio. Beers are half-priced during Tatoheads' happy hour (when many are $3), a discounted-drinks session that bucks a local, end-early trend by extending from 4 to 8 p.m.
Table service isn't offered, so everything is ordered at the bar. This includes the bold-yet-comforting, scratch-made fare of Varga, formerly the head chef at Double Comfort and Explorers Club.
At Tatoheads, Varga has built an appealing menu of rare-in-town Hungarian food buttressed with reimagined tavern classics. In addition to his compact and well-executed menu, Varga generally offers a special or two that will merit attention.
For instance, the sweet-and-smoky, texturally entertaining Hunky Bunz($10) — Hungarian-American-Chinese hybrid sliders — were a wonderful starter. Two puffy, rice-flour buns enveloped sous vide-cooked house bacon resembling serious ham; an aromatic, vinegar-based slaw fashioned with cabbage, peppers and pickling spices; plus a peach gose gastrique.
If the Hentes Tokany special ($12) is offered, jump on it. Like many dishes here, it's fragrant with paprika and black pepper. In this case, those spices liven a huge serving of stew that's cooked down and strewn with braised pork, house-smoked ham, potatoes plus house pickles. The hearty, smoky and tangy entree came with Swiss chard sauteed with garlic scapes and haluski — herbed and buttered noodle curls.
Different noodles — spaetzle-like nokedli — are tucked inside the deeply soothing Paprikash Palacsinta ($7). This hefty-yet-supple crepe-burrito, with plentiful tender chicken drenched in an addictive sauce made with sour cream and paprika, showcases how crowd-pleasing classic Hungarian dishes can be.
Ditto for Anya's Cabbage Rolls ($10), Varga's winning take on another Hungarian favorite. Two hulking, structurally sound and characteristically muscular yet almost-delicate tubes of aromatic ground meat plus rice and house kraut are each expertly sheathed in a steamed cabbage leaf.
With their crisp panko-crusted shells, the Dutch Fried Meatballs ($8) recall sauerkraut balls but are packed with tender and delicious, braised beef brisket. They arrived atop a mustard-mayo sauce alongside a pretty, edible flower.
It's common for familiar dishes to get special treatment here — such as Chef Dan's Mini Mac ($5), one of the best sides of macaroni and cheese I've had anywhere this year. And the lean-tasting Pickled Deviled Eggs ($6), a “two-fer” ovum treat, outpace most others with their rich-yet-perky fillings, firm exteriors pickled in beet juice and smoky house lardons.
Instead of fried, the Badass Wingz ($10) are crisply grilled and served with an intense blue cheese and celery slaw, and the Stuffed Tatoheads ($6) — crunchy potato skins — are elevated by local cheese curds and house back bacon bits.
Hamburger and sausage sandwich aficionados would do well to order the Anderson Farms Brat Burger ($11) and the Hunky Sausage ($10). Both killer sandwiches — which come with (mostly crisp) thick-cut house chips — are big, juicy, house-made, deftly seasoned, loaded with flavorful garnishes and arrive on high-quality rolls.