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TRADITIONAL CZECH FOOD IN PRAGUE: WHAT TO HAVE AND WHERE TO HAVE IT

Let’s be honest here: you did not travel to Prague to eat Italian. You want traditional Czech cuisine in its best form, and you want it right now.

But what are the classic Czech foods and where do you have them? Well, one way to find out is to book our Traditional Czech Food Tour, where we serve Czech classics that are close to achieving the impossible goal of matching the deliciousness that our beloved grandmas used to serve us when we were kids (albeit with a modern twist – don’t expect tourist cliches from us).

Cannot join us for a few hours of serious overeating and fun stories about what these foods mean to us? Then there’s the Prague Foodie Map, the next best thing if you want to see Prague and its food and culture through our eyes.

Okay, enough with the shameless plugs. You want free stuff. Here’s a list of classic Czech foods and our favourite Prague restaurants for traditional Czech cuisine that remind us of our childhood. Before you follow these, beware: Czech food is delicious, comforting, very filling and addictive, so make sure you reserve enough time to walk off those calories. Yes, there won’t be many salads – or vegetables for that matter – in the list that follows. But you did not travel to Prague to eat salad, right? What? You did? We pity the fool.

Traditional Czech Food in Prague

BEEF STEAK TARTARE

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Oh, the glory of the steak tartare. The guests of our Prague food tours often fear it, then taste it, and end up asking for seconds and thirds. The undisputed king of the “snacks that go well with beer” category (see below), the steak tartare is a Czech classic you should not leave Prague without tasting. It’s raw beef that is cut, scraped or minced and served with condiments and either an egg on top, or simply sold premixed.

How do you eat this thing? With toasted bread and a clove of garlic. This dates back to the time Italian workers built our railways, and brought bruschettas with them. We don’t grow olives here so we toast the bread on the Czech equivalent of olive oil: pork fat. (Butter will do just fine.) You grate the garlic against the rough surface of the toast, and put a generous portion of the meat on top for the perfect textural contrast.

We have several favourites in Prague but we keep coming back for the beef steak tartare at Nase maso or its sister, Kantýna in the New Town. The meat taken from dry-aged Czech spotted cows is premixed with onions, egg, oil, cream, fried capers and other things. The perfect companion? A glass of freshly poured Pilsner, but you’ll get a pass from us if you take a disk of this meaty beauty from Nase maso and eat it with a glass of Czech red at the Bokovka wine bar next door. (Yes, they will allow it.) For French-style steak tartare mixed on the spot, visit the elegant Café Savoy.

KULAJDA

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As Mr Sahajdak, the Executive Chef at La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise said in our interview, Czech cuisine is all about soups and sauces. And if there is one traditional Czech soup, it must be the Kulajda (pronounced “ku-lay-dah”): a creamy potato soup with mushrooms, dill, vinegar and a poached egg on top. As strange as it may seem, the best version in Prague is served in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel restaurant. A recipe by Mr Stift, a former judge in the first series of Czech Masterchef, this has become a staple on the Lounge and Terrace all-day menu of the otherwise Asian-focused Spices restaurant. This is the fine dining version of the soup. For a more rustic, traditional version of the same soup, visit Café Imperial on the other side of the river. Don’t be scared to share one portion: it’s a bucket of soup. Vinohradský parlament in the Vinohrady district serves a fairly sweet version of Kulajda if you like those flavor profiles.

WIENER SAUSAGES

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The Czechs have a national sport: claiming things that are actually German. And sausages are definitely one of those things. But hey, who really knows where exactly were the Frankfurter and the Wiener sausage really invented? Oh, wait. Anyway, the Czechs love sausages and eat them as fast food, breakfast (the first time Jan saw cornflakes was when he was a 16yo foreign exchange student in the US), and as the perfect solid companion to beer. For the best Wieners in Prague, we go to the Nase maso butcher shop. More often than we’d actually like, we tend to order the “variace”: one classic, one beef and one Debrecener sausage, all on a paper plate with a bit of mustard and bread, the way these should be eaten. We don’t know what we enjoy more. The snap from the natural skip when you bite into them, or the juicy meat that follows? Czechs give sausages to screaming three-year-olds to shut them up. Works every time. ‘Nuff said. Now, for an updated, cool, and slightly globalized hot dog experience, we’d book a table at the brilliant Mr.HotDog.

SVICKOVA

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Describing the recipe for svickova is a minefield: everybody agrees that the vegetable sauce with cream contains carrots, celery and parsley root, that it involves a piece of beef pierced with speck and that it is served with bread dumplings. But that’s where the consensus stops: the remaining ingredients, their proportions and especially the finishing touches can stir many emotions. Yes, the svickova, a classic Czech dish made for weddings or Sunday family lunches, is a very personal, intimate affair tied to the family recipe. Your grandma’s the best. The rest is crime against humanity. Think Thanksgiving dinner in the US.

We like the version at Na Pekarne in the Cakovicky village just outside of the city the most. (Yes, you can Uber it there.) It is on the sweeter side, the flavours are deep, the sauce, which really makes the dish, has a rich, silky texture, and the Carlsbad dumplings are hard to fault. Finished off with cranberry compote, this dish is a true staple of traditional Czech cuisine. Don’t want to travel that far? That’s okay. Just visit the Next Door restaurant and order their version. What sets it apart from other versions is the quality of the meat: while the sauce is nearly always decent, Next Door version’s meat towers above the rest.

ROAST DUCK

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There are not many Czech traditional dishes that would be based around chicken, but duck? A completely different story. Even Hana Michopulu, the owner of the Sisters bistro, made duck confit for the late Anthony Bourdain in the Prague episode of the No Reservations travelogue. Pair that scrumptious, juicy and tender confit with sauerkraut and dumplings, and you’ve got a staple that is an indispensable part of many Czech Sunday lunches eaten in the family circle.

Just like schnitzel, duck can be found on the menu of many restaurants, but we go to U Bansethu in the Nusle district for our personal favourite, albeit an idiosyncratic version: the duck is actually stuffed with a mixture of dumpling and sauerkraut (both normally served as a side), and you simply get a quarter of the entire thing. Combine with fresh Pilsner for a combo that is everything: rich, sweet, tangy, salty and bitter in every bite and gulp. Also, at CZK 130 a pop, this is a steal.

Another great version of duck is served at Ossegg in the Vinohrady district. We’d pair it with the tasting board of the craft beers made in the basement. Want something fancier? The duck confit at Next Door never disappoints – this is where we’d take the in-laws. And last but not least: we do know about The Blue Duckling, of course. It’s a place that has a duck in the name for Christ’s sake. Nothing wrong with having duck there. The only thing that keeps us from recommending it more is the fact that it tends to be pretty touristy.

DILL SAUCE (“KOPROVKA”)

Mercilessly tortured for ages by the school cafeteria, the dill sauce is on the most beloved – and hated – dishes in the repertoire of Czech cuisine. When done properly, it is an absolutely fantastic companion to either slow-cooked beef or poached or cooked egg (yes, the dill sauce is one of the best Czech vegetarian dishes, too) and usually served with potatoes. It has always been the biggest surprise of our Prague food tours whenever served.

Our current favorite dill sauce in Prague is served by The Eatery in the Holesovice district. Chef Bycek serves a refined version of the classic that has all the deep, slightly sweet and sour flavors of the original, without the heft. Another great version can be served at Kuchyn in the Prague Castle district, but the fact is that the concept of the restaurant relies on frequent changes in the menu, so you can never know if they will have it. Finally, the dill sauce with pork tongue at Vycep in the Vinohrady district is a fantastic modern update on the classic. That said, calling that dish traditional would be a bit of a stretch.     

SCHNITZEL WITH POTATO SALAD

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Traditional Czech food is Central European food, and the schnitzel is the perfect example. Claimed by the Viennese, the Wiener schnitzel is veal, the Czech and German versions are mostly pork, and the Cotoletta alla Milanese from Milan, Italy, is veal again. But in all these instances, it’s a piece of tenderised meat that is breaded and fried, preferably in butter. Breading the schnitzel is a specific, zen-like activity that is used to introduce children into the kitchen: you won’t cut yourself breading a schnitzel, will you? The perfect die? The potato salad, the king of all sides. The traditional Czech version is a mixture of potatoes, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, onions and pickles, with mayo, mustard, brine from the pickles and salt and pepper.

The best version in Prague? Café Savoy in our book. The breading has a nutty aroma from the clarified butter, and the salad is a perfectly balanced mix of salty, sweet and acidic. Served with cranberries, too, this is our go to when we return from a long vacation and need to recalibrate our taste buds to Czech cuisine again.

That said, the best schnitzel (sans the potato salad) is served by Kantýna. It is a specific version: a thick slab of pork neck, the fattiest of cuts used for schnitzel, it is reminiscent of Japanese tonkatsu, and takes nearly half an hour to fry and bake. It is just incredibly crispy, juicy and tender. Next to the carpaccio and the dry-aged beef burger, it’s the best thing Kantýna serves. The only problem? It’s not always on the menu, but that should not stop you from ordering it if you’re willing to wait. Asking for it won’t hurt. Drop our name. Good luck.

FRIED CHEESE

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“I could write a whole book on fried cheese,” said an Israeli vegetarian expat taking our food tour with his friends once. He is so right. It tells you something about the plight of vegetarians here in the Czech Republic when the classic Czech vegetarian dish actually contains zero vegetables, is fried and defies any notion of seasonality. That said, many Czechs would argue that “fried cheese”, i.e. a slice of fried, breaded Eidam cheese, is a gooey, cheesy, rich, comforting and utterly delicious piece of food that never fails to satisfy. And who are we to judge, anyway?

Now, who are we kidding? The only place to have fried cheese in town is any of the Lokál pubs. Their cheese is aged in house for extra six weeks and pan-fried in butter. In Dlouhá street Lokál, one of the five chefs in the kitchen is responsible solely and exclusively for breading and frying cheese: they can sell around 500 a day. And it is something Jan’s Slovak cousins always insist on tasting the first moment they arrive in Prague. We don’t blame them.

GOULASH

Mushroom goulash at U Mateje

Just like the schnitzel, the goulash is shared all across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Czech version is a thicker stew, usually uses a cheaper cut of beef (sometimes pork, too), and is served with dumplings. And just like svickova, many people can agree what a goulash is, but every pub has it’s own, specific recipe that can vary wildly. That said, goulash is actually a great safe bet: when you walk into a Czech restaurant and the menu seems to lack focus, goulash is something that you can always rely on, as most restaurants will serve a decent version.

For a good goulash in the centre of Prague, we’d visit the Mincovna restaurant in the Old Town Square, or the KATR restaurant nearby (popular among former Czech hockey and and football players). Both serves fresh Pilsner, the perfect pairing. Vegetarians should take note of the mushroom goulash, a very popular version that takes advantage of the Czechs’ knack for mushroom picking. The best version of that can be had in the recently opened U Mateje restaurant in Prague’s sixth district. It uses a variety of mushrooms for a beautiful mixture of flavors and textures.

 

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