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Hungarians say goodbye goulash, hello burgers and fries. Fast-food craze hits sensitive political spot

Mariann Kovacs couldn't stomach her mom's heavy goulash today. With her friends, the teen-ager is out on the town, looking for a ``cheap, fast, and fun'' snack. So she eats a hamburger. Fast food has come to the East bloc. A few years ago, entrepreneurs began setting up small stands on Budapest's boulevards. They flourished.

Soon there were some 500 of them, and the state joined in. Taverna Catering and Hotel Enterprises set up the first fast-food chain in a communist country. Called City Grill, it has thrived since opening its doors less than two years ago.

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The branch on V'aczi Street, Budapest's main shopping street, is packed 24 hours a day. During the day, it serves shoppers and workers who don't have time to head home for a two-hour lunch. In the evening, it becomes a chic spot for the city's youth to gather.

``We fit the needs of a changing society,'' says Erszebet Jung, City Grill's product manager. She says that the shop sells 3,000 hamburgers and 1,000 hotdogs a day. Plans call for expansion.

``We have five stores now,'' says Mrs. Jung. ``Within a few years, we could have between 30 to 40. We're even thinking of exporting to other socialist countries.''

This fast-food craze hits a sensitive political nerve. Ivan Berendt, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, says that for many years hamburgers were seen as another disruptive Western influence, along with rock-and-roll music.

City Grill's appearance has fueled sarcastic comments in the press, and even criticism in Parliament, where a member argued against the use of English in its name, saying that it threatens the purity of the Hungarian language. But hard-liners are fighting a losing battle. As part of its overall policy of relaxing cultural restrictions, Hungary now accepts a great deal of Western pop culture.

Hungary's economic reforms also havehelped. ``We discovered fast food could be a good business,'' says Mr. Berendt.

It soon promises to be an even bigger business, because McDonald's is coming. A Hungarian state catering firm recently signed a contract to franchise the US fast food giant here.

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City Grill's Jung is not worried about the competition. She says that City Grill's hamburgers were conceived especially for the Hungarian market. Hungarian cooking is characterized by savory soups and spicy stews. That's why City Grill hamburgers are prepared with paprika, hot red peppers, and garlic. A pork hamburger and traditional sausages, called ``kalbus,'' also are offered. For dessert, there's four types of strudel.

City Grills's food is also cheaper than what is likely to be offered by McDonald's. A City Grill hamburger costs 19 forints (47 cents), fries 10 forints (23 cents), and a cola drink 8 forints (19 cents).

``We don't think McDonald's can match those prices,'' says Jung. ``They will have a hard time adapting to the market.''

Judging by the reaction on V'aczi Street, she may be right. Although 30-year-old Ferenc Sarkozi says he prefers goulash, he adds that it is ``too heavy'' and ``too expensive'' to eat every day for lunch. Margit Csanadi, a teen-ager, says the hamburger is ``hipper'' than goulash. Nobody seems eager for McDonald's.

``McDonald's?'' asks Mariann Kovacs. ``I never heard of it.''

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