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Gypsy Flavor

Bistro E Europe

Step into this charming, slightly cluttered Hungarian restaurant on most nights and find the tables packed with patrons, the din of live Eastern European music in the background, and gregarious owner Julia Pecak serving up dish after dish of her divine home-cooked fare.

The Bay Area's only restaurant to pay homage to the Roma (or Gypsy) people and their cuisine, come here for the Hungarian comfort food, not the fancy digs. The décor is a bit haphazard--Christmas lights are strung throughout and vivid paintings clutter the walls--but the end effect is a laid-back, homey charm that's as disarming as Julia's warm welcome.

But it's the food — laden with paprika and dished out in generous portions — that takes center stage at Bistro E. Traditional Gypsy fare is heavy, so pace yourself to enjoy the meal from appetizer to dessert. The cold sour cherry soup is meant for select palates, but the Korozott/Liptaur — a cheese and onion spread served with thick, crusty slices of Julia's homemade bread — won't fail to please.

The array of entrees includes staples like a hearty guly´s (goulash) in a rich paprika broth with tender chunks of meat, cabbage stuffed with spicy ground beef, and house-smoked sausage. Although Hungarian fare often errs on the meat-heavy side, vegetarians will find almost half the menu dedicated to carnivore-free choices, including a sumptuous mushroom paprikash and the specialty of the house, burek: homemade strudel dough stuffed with spinach, cabbage or squash. Most dishes are accompanied by spaetzle — small, dumpling-like pasta.

Leave room for dessert. Julia's flaming rum cake (literally set on fire) may not be ethnic, but it's deliciously decadent. Those going for the full on Hungarian experience should stick to the excellent strudel or the Dobos Torta, a traditional layered cake. Wash down your meal with a bottle of the portentously named Bull's Blood, a dry red wine that goes nicely with any menu choice — or pick from a list of Eastern European brews.

Prices are moderate, with entrees hovering around the $10-$15 range. The perfect place to celebrate a birthday, promotion, or just the regular weekend release from the drudgery of corporate life, Bistro E's feel-good atmosphere, no-frills food and friendly staff makes this neighborhood gem a worthwhile stop.