“This city’s not big enough for two of us,” said Johnny Cruz told me when I met him last Friday night. He’s the owner of Johnny’s Bistro, in Diosd, a suburb of Budapest.
He’s a rare find in the Central European country of Hungary, where a group of eight people from Wakefield Central Baptist Church spent a week on a church mission trip.
It’s not the first time I’ve been to Budapest, but it’s the first time I’ve met someone who shares my name.
Cruz is a native of Los Angeles. He fits the laid-back stereotype of a southern Californian so many easterners apply to them.
We ate at his bistro Saturday night, a starbust of American food right were you would least expect it.
Cruz’s restaurant serves American cuisine – most of us had a hamburger or a cheeseburger – but he had a lot of other American dishes that have made his restaurant a favorite for American expatriots living in the Budapest area.
Unlike most restaurant owners, though, Johnny spent time visiting with us while we ate his great food.
He has a wonderful way of picking on people and making them feel special because they were the target of one of his barbs. His easy laugh makes you want to continue any conversation.
After Cruz graduated from high school he took a job in contruction, but even in California, the winter is not a busy time for building, so he took a friend’s suggestion and started working at a restuarant, since he already liked to cook.
The work was rewarding enough that went to culinary school at a local community college and a career was born.
He soon moved to Hilton Head, S.C., where, one night, he served a man and his daughter from Hungary. The daughter eventually became his wife and 13 years ago, he picked up and moved to Budapest, where he started working as a chef at a Mexican restaurant in one of the city’s biggest commercial districts.
Last year, hoping to get out of the din of the noisy city center, he decided to strike out on his own and, well, he returned to his roots. At first, it looked like the experiment might not work out. Keeping a restaurant open for any length of time, is a challenge no matter what the address.
But then, someone blogged about their dining experience at Johnny’s Bistro and, ever since, he’s been ultra successful.
His bistro – we couldn’t decide whether the classify it as a dive, a diner or a drive-in – features a southern California flair. Videos from surfing contests and sailing events filled a big screen and the music had an All-American sound to it as well.
Cruz isn’t afraid of change. A surfer, he admits to missing the big waves in landlocked Hungary, but he’s hoping to change that soon.
His children are about ready to begin school and he wants them educated in the U.S., so he’s preparing to move again – this time to Hawaii.
But Johnny’s Bistro will remain. He plans to maintain a majority stake in the business and leave a trusted lieutenant in charge of the day-to-day operation.
If Johnny eventually leaves the Budapest area, it will be that region’s loss. He’s a character and a wonderful part of the tapestry of a region that has so much to enjoy.