Carla Meyer

Dining review: Cafe Marika's a simple pleasure

It may take several visits to Café Marika before you break the code, before you figure out that the two folks who work mostly in deadpan silence in this tiny room with only five tables, a counter and a cash register are not like some (or most) couples married for 37 years.

In coming to this understanding, you will have the chance to work through the entire no-nonsense Hungarian and Eastern European menu, where everything is made just the way it should be: fresh, consistent and tender, with mostly mild flavors, simple sides and gravies.

Pork schnitzel, cabbage stuffed with ground pork, goulash and a spicy chicken paprikash in which the meat is so tender you simply tease it away from the bone with a twist of your fork.

No, husband-and-wife restaurateurs Louie and Eva Chruma don't really hate each other. It only seems that way at first encounter, as you watch them in action, mostly in silence, usually without cracking a smile and never in a hurry.

Did we just walk into the middle of spat?

Though no one is going to mistake midtown's Café Marika for the Love Shack or Laughs Unlimited, in reality, these two restaurateurs are actually funny and as warm and sincere as the food they bring to the table.

They rib each other when the time is right and they have that special kind of unspoken language that combines enduring love with "yah, yah, I've heard it before."

We didn't see a smile during our several visits, but we assume there's no restaurant policy that forbids it. Once, when I mentioned I couldn't decide between the schnitzel or the goulash, hoping for a little nudge or a suggestion, perhaps, Eva simply stared at me. It was perfect and I got the message – if it's on the menu, it's really good.

They work together and go home together and wake up together, so it's easy to forgive them if they're not exactly chatty and perky and positively beaming when we walk in for some of their fine food.

This, you should know up front, is only part of what's so appealing about Café Marika, the deceptively modest little eatery Louie and Eva opened 21 years ago.

They don't take credit cards, they don't cut corners, they don't remodel, they don't take suggestions, they don't follow trends, they make everything from scratch, have never considered hiring an employee and, from the looks of it, haven't purchased a new appliance, pot or pan since the onset of World War II.

If you want wine, they fill your glass to the top with one of three or four selections. The beer is also limited, but you can't go wrong with Czech mainstay Pilsner Urquell.

Perhaps you have walked past, looked in the window at the outdated décor, the fading art prints on the wall and those rickety chairs and wondered: Is this place worth a look? Indeed, it is.

Not only that, but Café Marika is one of those special places that make it a must-visit destination for anyone hoping to get a sense of what's special about the Sacramento dining scene.

Cozy, quirky, consistent, a tad eccentric. It's all here, in a space not much bigger than a phone booth.

But if you come for the charm, you'll come back for the food. In a restaurant world of fancy and fadish, this is the kind of old- fashioned, straight-at-you cooking that never goes out of style. This was comfort food before comfort food became a fad.

Louie toils in the back, tending to the impossibly old and well-worn oven and stove, and stirring pots so blackened and dinged I couldn't take my eyes off them.

Eva is out front, understated and seemingly all business when you meet her. Here comes the water, the menus, the hello. You can sometimes hear banging in the back – Louie is making schnitzel, perhaps, flattening the meat with a mallet before coating it and frying it perfectly golden brown.

They move with a sense of purpose, but there is no need for panic. There is no rushing at Café Marika. If you're in a hurry, if you're pushy and impatient, you go somewhere else. You want fancy? You want style? One of those acid-stained concrete floors every other restaurant has? Real art on the walls? Bye-bye.

On our first visit, it was cold and raining outside and this was the perfect antidote – hot, hearty food like the chicken paprikash ($11.50), cooked in a creamy and mild sauce along with delicious spaetzle, a German-style pasta. It was also pleasantly old-fashioned to include soup or salad, bread and butter, and a dessert – a very nice and not-too-sweet apple strudel.

Newcomers to Hungarian food may balk at something like stuffed cabbage ($13.75). But take a chance and try it. It may be the best thing on the menu – very tender and soothing, and again, delicious pork mildly seasoned.

The pan-fried pork schnitzel is another winner, large, thin pieces of lean pork that is breaded and cooked to a golden brown. It's served with potato salad that is, again, nicely balanced in flavor.

Dinner is served only on Thursday through Saturday. Lunch is on weekdays and it's an excellent deal with a slightly different menu. My chicken dish arrived in mere minutes and was as tender and deeply flavored as it can get.

One noteworthy trait at Café Marika is the consistency. The chef has a command of his craft. If you like the cooking at this place, you will always like it. There are no off days and no goofball fill-ins for Louie in the kitchen or Eva out front. This is their show and only their show and they are committed to doing it right.

Louie and Eva came to this country in dramatic fashion, escaping communist Czechoslovakia.

"We sneaked out through the border. It wasn't easy. We had two small kids," Eva told me.

They came to the United States for the freedom and the opportunity to succeed, and have never forgotten the life they fled. They knew they could make a success of a restaurant if they kept things simple and did it all themselves.

"Many people born here don't appreciate freedom. They take it for granted," Eva told me. "People who came from somewhere else, they know what it's like."

I asked Eva how she and her husband manage to put up with each, together as they are at home and at work.

"Not everything is honey," she joked.

And Louie added with a laugh, "Here we are together and at home we are separated."

Whatever their formula is and however they explain it, it's working just the way it should be at this loveable little restaurant where nothing ever changes.