After the woman had finished her lecsó sandwich, cherry turnover, and choco-spice latte, she asked if she could take a nap on the couch.
At first Rafael Esparza thought she was joking. "So I said, 'Yeah,' and she proceeded to take her shoes off, kick her feet up, and knock out for like an hour and a half," says the chef and co-owner of Finom Coffee.
Finom inhabits a 130-year-old two-story frame building, and its old-timey wood-clad interior feels like a comfortable refuge from the car-swept, pigeon-stained commotion surrounding the confluence of Irving Park Road, the Kennedy, and the Blue Line and Metra stops just outside its doors.
Or it could be that the sandwich did her in. That's a custardy pile of buttery eggs, soft scrambled with a vegetable-and-sausage ragout, slices of smoky butterkäse cheese, and a smear of absinthe-spiked mustard, all swaddled in a buttery croissant from Edgewater's Phlour Bakery.
Lecsó, a paprika-stained Hungarian stew of lard-sauteed peppers and tomatoes, doesn't typically appear on a sandwich. But it is typically consumed with bread, as it is with Finom's slightly more traditional expression of it, served in a mini Le Creuset crock, crowned with a sel gris-sprinkled sunny-side up egg. Esparza supplements the erstwhile kick provided by hard-to-find gypsy peppers with a dose of Erős Pista ("Strong Steve") Hungarian pepper paste.
Esparza, who's worked at Kimski, Momotaro, Yusho, and A10, isn't Hungarian, and neither is his partner, Daniel Speer, a former corporate chef for Nordstrom's—but Speer's wife is. When the two friends were trying to decide what kind of food to serve in their coffee shop, they wanted to find something people couldn't get anywhere nearby.
Esparza knew nothing about Hungarian food, but that didn't faze him. The flavor profiles are nothing most are unfamiliar with. He had a more primary concern. "Coffee-shop food sucks," he says. "And it sucks to me that people are OK with really shitty food. You paid $7 for a shitty sandwich? It's expected. We have to change the way people perceive this food."
But if you have any familiarity with Hungarian food, Esparza might change those perceptions too. Fans of the late, great Paprikash shouldn't expect the generous, meaty gut-busting platters that spot trafficked in.
OK, the goulash (in Hungarian it's gulyásleves) is pretty straightforward, an example of what Esparza means when he says the name of the dish is the only thing that might seem unfamiliar. It's a warming, unleaded beef stew (built on meat from the underappreciated knuckle bone) with parsnips, carrots, and onions; a defense against the Chiberian punishment we're grappling with.
The deceptively titled marrow toast, on the other hand, is a delicate thing of beauty, a smooth composite, not of bone jelly, but veal brain (or "head marrow" in Hungary), chicken liver, and smoky bacon, spread thin across toasted sourdough, bedazzled with sliced watermelon radish and pickled tomato, and showered with cured egg yolk and assorted microflora.
Esparza and Speer round out the rest of this concise menu with house-made pickles, curated cheese and charcuterie plates, and Portuguese and Spanish canned seafood conservas. There are pastries from Oak Park's Spilt Milk, and more from Phlour too, but it's when Esparza goes rogue with weekly specials that things get particularly interesting. When a friend gave him a case of cactus paddles, he jumped off from the tomato tartare at Momotaro and put together a charred nopale tartare, a constructed puck of meaty cacti amalgamated with pickled tomato, raisins, cauliflower, cucumbers, Erős Pista aioli, absinthe mustard, and sourdough bread crumbs. An aversion to working with poultry led to mushroom paprikash (versus the standard chicken), its sauce boosted with mushroom dashi and puree and dressed with wild porcini powder and spherified truffle "caviar." Another time he took körözött, the ubiquitous farmer-cheese table spread and gussied it up with an artful perimeter of paprika, mizuna, bread crumbs, edible flowers, and egg-yolk jam.
With limited space and equipment, Esparza is nonetheless willing to play dealer's choice with whatever he has on hand. "I'm cooking with no hood, an induction burner, a soup warmer, and residual heat from a toaster oven," he says. But "I will 100 percent freestyle it."
Coffee and tea are provided by Counter Culture Coffee and Rare Tea Cellars, respectively, and appear with help from barista Ari Franco in specialty lattes such as the aforementioned choco spice, a Ibarra chocolate latte dusted with paprika and crumbled Abuelita chocolate cookies; a Turkish delight latte with rosewater and candied rose petals; and a sunrise in a coffee cup: the Hawaiian Fog, an almond-milk-and-hibiscus-tea latte dusted with dried cherry powder and turmeric.
Finom, on a smaller scale, is in league with the likes of Humboldt's Park's Café Marie Jeanne and Washington Park's late Currency Exchange Café, those rare community spaces where the food is no afterthought to the caffeine or the comfortable surroundings. v
Eds. note: This story has been updated to correct that Rafael's last name is Esparza, not Galarza.