Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017
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Restaurant Review: Tony Packo's****

Ask anybody in Toledo what kind of food the venerable Tony Packo's Caf serves and you'll get similar responses: Hungarian sausages, spicy chili, chicken paprikas with dumplings and gravy, stuffed cabbage with tomato kraut, Hungarian hamburgs, hot roast beef sandwiches, and homemade fruit strudels with ice cream.

The Hungarian dishes are indeed the caf's stock-in-trade, not only in its five Toledo locations but also around the country, thanks in large part to Toledo native Jamie Farr, who spread the word about Packo's often on the long-running TV series M*A*S*H, and to the marketing of its sauces, peppers, pickles, and sausages in grocery stores nationwide.

But even Packo's regulars might be surprised to know that the eatery also serves up at least two items that don't appear on any of the menus. One is yellow lake perch dinners, served at all five outlets, and the other is Hungarian ham sandwiches, which I could find at only two of the outlets.

Then there are Tony Packo's bratwursts on a bun, which are sold only at the express Packo's in The Andersons stores in Toledo and Maumee.

Why this confusion? I asked the question of employees at four of the five restaurants recently, and nobody seemed to know for sure. No matter: In terms of portion size and taste, the fish, ham, and bratwurst don't hold a candle to the flavorful Hungarian dishes.

The senior Tony Packo started the restaurant in 1932 in the Birmingham section of East Toledo. His son, Tony, Jr., and nephew Robin Horvath have expanded the business to include the two express Packo's in The Andersons and two others in Sylvania and downtown Toledo. But the original caf on Front Street remains the most interesting and nostalgic of the five, glowing with dozens of Tiffany-style lamps amid the aromas of Hungarian cuisine wafting through the place and out onto the street.

Packo's T-shirts and jars of supermarket specialties are for sale inside, and caravans of tourists still drop by, as much for the chance to see all the celebrity-signed, plastic-encased hot dog buns that line the restaurant walls as for the food. The celebrities range from Burt Reynolds and Zsa Zsa Gabor to Helen Hayes and Naomi Judd.

Probably the best - albeit most gluttonous - way to sample the Hungarian dishes is with the $10.99 feast, which includes a cup of chicken or vegetarian chili, a cabbage roll, and a Packo's hot dog with shredded cheese. Or, try devouring the M*O*A*D (Mother Of All Dogs), a $12.99 monster that's four times larger than the regular dog.

For my money, the $9.99 chicken paprikas takes the prize - boneless chicken breast with dumplings and lots of Hungarian gravy, accompanied by vegetables, and cole slaw or cucumber salad with sour cream followed up by a strudel, apple dumpling, or two Nestle's Toll House cookies for 99 cents. Talk about nostalgia.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com.

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