S ome of the best comfort foods comes from Central and Eastern Europe. The cold climate of the region means plenty of hearty meat-based dishes and a steady stream of comforting carbohydrates, unadulterated by vegetables, frequently topped with some form of dairy. This part of the world is particularly skilled at the potato stuffed dumpling -- there are pelmeni, pierogi -- and what might be my most favorite, spaetzle, or flour dumplings ingeniously masquerading as pasta.
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But it’s not exactly the easiest of foods to find. There isn’t a Chipotle for pierogies. It’s not a cuisine that tends to get the chef treatment. So the decision by Bar Tartine alums Courtney Burns and Nick Balla to open Duna, a restaurant dedicated to the peasant food of Central-Eastern Europe, came as a surprise. Their decision to open in a long space in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District -- perhaps best known for its high concentration of some of the nation’s best burritos -- is even more surprising.
Duna, which is Hungarian for the Danube River, is a restaurant the city needs. The majority of innovation in San Francisco is confined to the tech space, while the San Francisco restaurant scene has less room for risk-taking due to prohibitively expensive rents -- a tough obstacle for an industry with notoriously low margins. Many have been sticking to what they know will work: endless riffs on the New American, small plates theme.
Burns and Balla have seen other concepts that don’t fit that particular mold fail. Before opening Duna, the space housed Motze, the duo’s short-lived Japanese concept. They forged on, turning to a menu inspired by Balla’s Hungarian roots. But he is quick to point out that anyone coming in looking for “replicas of dishes exactly as they exist in Hungary” will be disappointed.
The restaurant serves up large plates of chicken paprikas, the chicken cooked in a paprika-laden cream sauce dish that is arguably Hungary’s most well-known culinary contribution. Duna’s version has the traditional components: springy, eggy spaetzle, tender chicken, a thick, deep-orange gravy. But Burns and Balla also add in smoked chile for extra smokiness, potato starch for its thickening prowess, and plenty of items from their larder -- onion powder, garlic powder -- that deviate from the norm.
Dishes might not be traditional, but they are freakishly good. It’s easy to eat your way through an order of the Liptauer cheese -- one of the many dips and spreads on the menu -- before remembering that you should probably share it with your dining companions. The cheese’s appearance falls somewhere between Play-Doh and pimento cheese, thanks to generous amounts of paprika. But the flavor is earthy, salty, and fully satisfying, especially when scooped up with a piece of Duna’s thick and chewy smoked potato flatbreads that are freshly griddled to order. (We made a mistake of ordering just one to split between four people before quickly realizing that each person would want their own.)
Salads at Duna are equally as satisfying, none made with a base of leafy greens. The Budapest opts for a mixture of diced paprika salami, pepper jack cheese, with a flourish of mushrooms and peppers. The Sofia has a tangy and playful mixture of feta, tomato, thick-cut cucumbers, and pickled green beans. Balla is a fermentation nerd, so ordering anything with a pickled this or a preserved that is always a good bet. Though kitchen space is limited -- Balla says they are looking for something bigger -- the team at Duna makes nearly everything from scratch, including the kefir cream that tops the lush chilled beet soup (definitely order this) and is later transformed into a pomegranate-spiked kefir soda (order this, too). Even the tea is made from a combo of “dried and fresh things” found in the kitchen.
The idealism in Duna's reliance on technology for service is a heavy-handed reminder that you're in the nation's tech hub. Balla and Burns seem determined to keep the restaurant extremely casual, even though the dimly lit space and complex menu call for a different style of service. It's insisted that you place your initial order with one of the handful of staffers carrying an iPad. Once the order is taken, your name is written on a piece of slate that you bring to your table, never mind that it is impossible to read unless you are eating during daylight hours.
Even stranger is the ability to add items to your order via text message. In theory, not having to flag down a server to order another round of drinks is a relief. In practice, we ended up doing that anyway to check on whether or not the kitchen had received our text. The moment Duna accepts it's not the Panera Bread of Central-Eastern European peasant food is when it becomes the perfect neighborhood restaurant that San Francisco deserves.
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Khushbu Shah is the Senior Food Features Editor at Thrillist and thinks you have to order several jars of Liptauer cheese and the smoked potato flatbread no matter what. Follow her travels to the best restaurants around the country @khushandoj.