Searching for the Strudel Man of Zizkov
Travel Blog • David Farley • 03.06.09 | 10:39 AM ET
It might have looked that way, but my Czech friend Milos and I were not aimlessly wandering the hilly streets of Prague’s Zizkov (pronounced: Zheezh-kof) neighborhood. We had a destination in mind. A few minutes earlier, the excitable Milos suddenly got an idea: “Strudel,” he yelled out. “There’s a guy somewhere in Zizkov who’s been selling the best apple strudel in Prague from a tiny shop in his apartment building. We must find him. Now.”
My stomach, which had been rumbling just a few minutes earlier, agreed. Milos began accosting people on the street with the frantic demeanor of someone who’d just realized their child had gone missing. A mother and daughter carrying plastic shopping bags pointed down the hill. A few blocks later a sinewy bearded guy walking a dog pointed up the hill. A gypsy woman standing on the street corner, inexplicably holding a plate of sauerkraut, pointed in a completely different direction. Finally we were crossing Konevova street, the busy dark avenue that splits the valley in Zizkov.
We trudged past the Orwellian TV tower that locals call “the Penis of Prague,” and through cobbled streets flanked with buildings boasting an eclectic mix of architecture: 19th-century neo-baroque and rococo next to panelaks, the boxy gray “commie condos” that were erected in the 1960s in response to a population boom. Zizkov has a special place in the hearts of Praguers. Once described to me as the “Brooklyn of Prague,” Zizkov is a strange mixture of pre-1989-era shops (some signs still read “SHOES,” “MEAT,” “FLOWERS”) sitting next to boutiques and hipster bars. It also has the distinction of hosting more pubs per capita than anywhere else in the Czech Republic (which is saying a lot for a nation that consumes more beer per capita than anywhere on the planet). People seeking a grizzled, salt-of-the-earth Czech pub experience come here.
And, apparently, so do people looking for the city’s best strudel. That is, if they can find it. After enough accosting of locals and fingers pointing up streets and around corners, we were apparently on the Strudel Man’s street. Thanks to Milos’ enthusiasm and our exhaustive search, I found myself—for the first time in my life—feeling excited about apple strudel.
And then we saw it: a small, ground-level shop tucked away below a panelak with a small white sign and the word “strudl” written in black letters. Milos was so excited, he began a light jog to the shop. I followed. But then we ran into a problem: it was closed.
“Oh, well,” said Milos, and then he repeated it again in a softer, more defeated tone. “Well, you want to get a beer?” It was 9 a.m., but the position of the hands of a clock have never seemed to give the locals pause when it comes to drinking beer, so why not?
But before I could answer the shop door began to rattle and the mustached Strudel Man emerged carrying—appropriately enough—a basket of apples. Milos spit out a slew of excitable Slavic words, telling the man that I had come from the United States to write about him (not exactly the truth) and that if we could just chat with him for a few minutes, we’d be grateful (true), and that we’d like to sample his legendary strudel (very true). He said the shop was closed that day, but since I had come all the way to eat strudel, he invited us in to his walk-in-closet-sized bakery, where a single industrial oven and several scattered baking sheets filled the space.
“I had occasionally baked for friends and family, and they always said I should think about selling it,” said the Strudel Man, whose real name is Petr Susta. “And then the revolution happened and I was unsure about what fate capitalism and the free market might bring to my family. So I started selling strudel on the side.” He was laid off from his job at the nearby TV tower a few years ago and now sells strudel full time.
We bought a few loaves of strudel (a bargain at about $2 a loaf) and said goodbye to the Strudel Man of Zizkov. As we turned to head down the hill, the Strudel Man said: “One more thing. The strudel goes well with beer.”
The Strudel Man was right: the baked apple concoction, which took the appearance of a large calzone (and was crispy on the outside, moist on the inside), did go well with beer. We sat in a smoky Zizkov pub among the salty regulars, washing our strudel down with foamy pilsner just after 9 in the morning, silently (but satisfyingly) consuming our new version of the Breakfast of Champions.