Thanks to actor Jamie Farr and M*A*S*H, Tony Packo's Cafe may be the best-known neighborhood restaurant in the country. As Cpl. Max Klinger, the Toledo-born Farr sang its praises several times during the long-running hit TV series.
But national name recognition alone isn't what gave the 72-year-old Packo's its vaunted reputation. Nor does it account for the tourists and locals who line up at the East Toledo tavern.
The main attraction has always been the food - spicy, stick-to-the-ribs Hungarian grub that threatens to make gluttons of us all, overstuffed but happy.
Among the choices from a broad menu: the famous Hungarian hot dog with chili sauce, accompanied by spicy chili brimming with beans and either beef or chicken; stuffed cabbage of beef and pork, with a hearty sauce of sour cream and tomato; Hungarian hamburger or sausage on rye with mustard and onions, and fabulous chicken paprikas, followed for dessert by apple strudel, apple dumpling, or an old-fashioned Nestle's Toll House cookie for 79 cents.
The success of Packo's has led to a branching out of its restaurants - one on Monroe Street in Sylvania, and two express outlets at The Andersons stores in Toledo and Maumee.
But the premier Tony Packo's remains the original at Front and Consaul streets in the Birmingham neighborhood of East Toledo. The surroundings, especially crowded at lunchtime and on weekends, are as comfortable as the food. Tiffany lamps light the place, and more than 1,000 plastic-encased hot dog buns, autographed by celebrities who have visited Packo's, hang from the walls.
Patrons are offered a variety of service alternatives. Many choose to wait in line to order and seat themselves, while others prefer to be served at tables or the bar.
As mentioned, the $6.49 chicken paprikas is one of the most satisfying dishes - boneless white meat served with Hungarian dumplings and an irresistible gravy. While the breast meat is indeed tender as advertised, I'd love to see a slow-cooked chicken leg or two on the plate to add to the variety.
Speaking of gluttony, the restaurant's latest headliner is called M*O*A*D, or Mother Of All Dogs, for people possessing an unbounded appetite and the jaws of a hippo. Whereas the original $2.49 hot dog features a vertically sliced, good-sized half-sausage, this $7.49 special is four times bigger. The long bun is stuffed with two full sausages - a gigantic feat of mastication even with a pitcher of beer to help wash it down. Slackers may want to settle for the somewhat smaller double dog for $3.79.
As an antidote to such gorging, there are simpler, though not necessarily less fattening, items to choose from, such as Chili & cheese fries at $5.49, Chicken Soup with dumplings ($2.59 a cup, $2.99 a bowl), and vegetable chili ($2.69 and $3.19). Side orders in the $1.99 range may also appeal to smaller appetites: paprikas dumplings, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, Hot German potato salad, kraut, and Tony Packo's chunky pickles and peppers, the same as those sold in supermarkets around the country.
A recent New York Times story about Hungarian food seems especially apt in regard to Tony Packo's: "You put a Hungarian in a room with a deep dish, a large cast-iron pot, a fowl and some wine, and you get a spectacular result."