Halo-Halo in Hungary: The Story Behind Budapest's Barako Kávéház
"Hungarians don’t know what this is," said Esther, the teenage barista of Barako Kávéház in Budapest, when I asked her for a halo-halo. The menu of the compact cafe — about the size of a studio loft — is otherwise dominated by the top hits of third-wave coffee. There are flat whites and long blacks; doppios and ristrettos; and then, below, halo-halo. The dessert works like a kabayan calling card — a clue to the atypical immigrant story behind Hungary's only Filipino cafe.
Esther, who is Hungarian, admitted that she found halo-halo's kaleidoscope of ingredients "a little weird." But she said she loved the final addition: purple peaks of ube ice cream. Co-owner Luleyn Andres makes the ice cream herself with dried ube that she stockpiles and covets through the year. The ingredient is flown straight from the Philippines, Luleyn said — much like she was, with her husband Ryan and daughter Paige, when they moved to Hungary in 2014.
“We just wanted to get out of Manila,” said Luleyn, when I asked her how she and her family ended up in Hungary — a country currently home to less than 400 Filipinos, according to the Philippine Embassy in Budapest. Before moving, both husband and wife worked in finance in Manila, where the endless fugue of traffic and crime wore into them like a groove.
The couple shopped for a new country with a checklist of requirements: they wanted to live somewhere in the EU but outside the eurozone, with cheap rent, a low crime rate, a good educational system — and, crucially, cold winters. Hungary checked all their boxes.
The Andres decided that opening a business was the best way to plant their roots in foreign soil. Coffee was a logical choice. It's in Ryan's blood, so to speak; his family has owned the venerable Kape Umali, once Luzon's largest supplier of coffee beans, since 1948.
Though Ryan insisted that he "didn't give a crap about coffee" until 2013, he can wax poetic about the nuances of Filipino cafe barako. It's intensely sweet, he said, with a bouquet that deepens as the coffee cools. Ryan compared the fragrance to jackfruit; others insist on aniseed. Some detect gracenotes of chocolate, warm spices like cardamom or even fresh blackberries.
That fruity, floral flavor goes over well with Hungarians, who "have a serious sweet tooth," said Ryan. He estimates that 95% of Barako customers are locals. Hungarians also make up the bulk of their staff. Ryan and Luleyn have taught their employees to call them "Mamsir," the Filipinized gender-neutral honorific, perhaps as an inside joke. It can be jarring to hear a Hungarian teenager call out the portmanteau in complete seriousness — "Mamsir, are we out of filters? Mamsir, where is the AeroPress?"
The Andres' influence has already begun to spread beyond the Kávéház. Their Kape Umali-branded barako beans supply hip shops around Budapest, including Pagony, a children's bookstore chain with the design sensibilities of a Stockholm listening lounge.
"Budapest is a pretty tight city," said Ryan, when I asked if he was satisfied with his choice of escape route. He called Hungary "a country coming of out its shell," where Iron Curtain homogeneity is slowly giving way to ethnic diversity, a vibrant creative scene and a willingness to change. "And you know," he said, "it's nice to be a part of that."
Barako Kávéház is located at Török u. 3, Budapest 1023, Hungary.
+36 30 283 7065