It's midafternoon as I make my way through crosstown traffic to Balaton, a strip-mall restaurant in Shaker Square on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. I arrive during quiet time—the period just after lunch but well before dinner. I order chicken paprikash with a side of cucumber salad and lángos, a Frisbee-size disk of fried bread that is meant to be torn into pieces and dipped into paprika-dusted sour cream and garlic butter.
Sisters Erika Nagy Johnson and Krisztina Nagy Ponti have worked at Balaton since they immigrated to Cleveland from Budapest in 1989. Erika was 14 and had just finished eighth grade; Krisztina had attended culinary school in Hungary and was just 17.
When they first started working at Balaton, the restaurant was owned by their great aunt, Terezia Nevery. After escaping the violence of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and immigrating to the United States, Terezia opened Balaton in 1964; she based the menu on the simple cuisine of her homeland near Lake Balaton in west-central Hungary.
Shortly after relocating the restaurant to its current location in 1998, Terezia passed away and Krisztina took ownership of Balaton with her husband. Erika turns to a picture of Terezia that hangs on the wall near the front of the restaurant and says, “Who knew that one day we were going to continue her legacy?”
Krisztina tells me with passion in her voice, “In order for the recipes to stay the same, to stay in the family, we always have to be here. It's not like you can just show someone what to do. It has to be in your heart, it has to be in your soul, in order to produce the same thing over and over. But you have to do it with love, just like you would do it for your family.”