A few years ago, on a gusty London morning, József Tóth noticed a group of London cab drivers huddled around a burger stand that lay along the route of his morning commute. He followed his nose, encouraged by the physical indications that this collection of men knew what they were up to when it came to eating, and soon discovered that the burger stand they huddle around was an unassuming gem of traditional English fare. Years later, Mr. Tóth opened his first restaurant in Budapest, and the burger stand, called Black Cab Burger was born at the corner of Mester and Viola streets.
“I got back,” explains József Tóth, “and I could make a real burger, but I couldn’t find one, anywhere.” He is sitting in Black Cab Burger’s second location, at Rákóczi út 19, between Astoria and Blaha Lujza tér. The restaurant’s interior is spotless and unpretentious. A large LCD screen displays order numbers, and customers watch it eagerly, sipping from (unfortunately plastic) pint glasses of London Pride, while they wait for their food. The placemats on their trays show a diagram of how to recycle their leftovers and packaging materials, once they are done.
We have just finished a couple of the most serious hamburgers I have ever had in my life, certainly the most serious I have encountered outside of America. When ordered rare, they come in glistening pink, dressed with everything. Double hamburgers are cooked to order as single larger patties, “So everything is the right temperature,” says Mr. Tóth, and are dressed in the increasingly popular every-topping-possible fashion: 300 grams of seared prime beef, topped with bacon, sharp cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, jalapenos and a pickle, dressed with mayonnaise, barbeque sauce, mustard and ketchup, and served on a toasted bun.
“We get all our beef from Vásárcsarnok,” he points out, referring to the Great Market Hall, the largest and oldest market in the city. “Even our Cumberland sausage is specially made by a local butcher… We even use fresh potatoes in the fries,” he adds, “as far as I know, everybody else uses frozen. I don’t know why. All the overhead is in the oil, the potatoes cost almost nothing.” Black Cab uses cholesterol free peanut oil.
What Mr. Tóth has tapped into, and part of what has made his business successful, is the natural intersection between quality and responsibility. He has made a series of small changes to streamline his business, by introducing guidelines for recycling and seeking out the best ingredients. He uses local distributors and farm fresh ingredients. Black Cab offers an array of healthy fresh-squeezed juices, in such exotic flavors as pumpkin and beetroot. He recycles everything he can and encourages his customers to do the same; A large flow chart is behind the trash bins, showing where to put the recyclable component of each meal’s remainder. Plastic bottles are banned, outright.
“We don’t have a veggie burger on the menu,” he considers, “but we make them under the counter. We fry an egg, put potatoes wedges between the buns, and double the [veggie] toppings. But this is a meat place,” he shrugs. “It’s for people that love meat.”
Beside dishes like the Cabbie Burger and Cab Dog that are made of mostly local ingredients, sit high-carbon footprint items (with lots of food miles) like Norwegian Salmon. Authentic ale and cider must be imported, and so are condiments like barbeque sauce and toppings like jalapenos. “We use the same buns as Burger King,” says Mr. Tóth, “they’re baked in a big factory outside of the city. They’re the right buns.” As for the cholesterol-free peanut oil, Hungary grew only 10 tons of peanuts last year and it is unclear how much of that has found its way into Mr. Tóth’s kitchen.
It raises an interesting question: When failing to compromise affects the quality of a product, where does a responsible business owner draw the line? Mr. Tóth’s heart is certainly in the right place; he produces fresh food with minimal waste, but the authentic food he serves necessarily involves ingredients that are not locally available. One cannot get Fuller’s London Pride, after all, from anywhere but London, but one can, and Mr. Tóth does, provide healthy low impact alternatives like market-fresh juices. When is it the consumer’s responsibility to avoid ingredients that are obviously high impact?
“We found out that a lot of what we wanted, wasn’t possible,” confesses Mr. Tóth, looking around the restaurant. “I wanted to recycle the heat from the grill, to heat the restaurant… I wanted to install this filter, this perlator, on the taps,” he trails off. He is referring to special aerating taps that help conserve water, which the restaurant is still in the process of installing. Black Cab also uses energy saving LED lights, and only environmentally friendly cleaning products.
Despite these practical measures, a hamburger is naturally a high impact indulgence: beef uses 28 times more space, 11 times more water, and generates 5 times more greenhouse gas than diary, poultry, pork or eggs. What Mr. Tóth has done, is to serve his hamburgers as responsibly as possible, while maintaining an unwavering standard of quality. As a burger purist, I cannot help but want him to succeed, his product is so delicious; and in the end, it is the food that makes Black Cab Burger exceptional. If you have a craving that only a hamburger and fries can satisfy, your first stop for taste and responsibility should be Black Cab Burger. Until then, eat more veggies.
Written by: Duncan Robertson
Originally appeared in Hungarian on 12th Febr, 2015