Mici are to Bucharest what hot dogs are to New York City. Construction workers and businessmen like them just the same, and there's no wrong time of day or night to eat them. Typically using a mix of pork, beef, lamb, minced garlic, black pepper, thyme, and anise, each mici spot has its own special recipe and grilling technique. Cooks jealously keep their recipes secret in hopes of one day being elected as the "best in town." But making mici is no easy task. The meat needs to be prepared hours before it's put on the fire, and the mix of different meats and spices has to be just right.
Romanians love these little juicy meat chunks so much that when the European Union tried to ban them due to the sodium bicarbonate used in the mix, the country fell into an uproar. People were so pissed off that the Romanian Ministry of Health had to lobby the European Parliament to assure that mici were included in the EU's "traditional food" list, and therefore exempted from following the Union's health and safety standards.
The ministry won out, and I am glad it did. The sodium bicarbonate might not be doing wonders for my health, but it gives mici a unique texture—that perfect spot between a hot dog and a hamburger.
Bucharest has hundreds of mici spots—from restaurants to simple grills placed on a street corner—but despite having just a few days in town, I set out on a quest to find the best. I asked Mircea, a local photographer and mici lover, to help me out with this daunting quest. "Finding the spots is easy," Mircea told me. "When you see smoke on the streets, you know it's a mici spot. What's hard is to decide on the best ones."
At 11 AM, we arrive at Obor, Bucharest's largest fruit and vegetable market, on the northern outskirts of town. All around us, vendors are haggling with customers over prices. Inside the market, four mici stands are busy grilling, but only one has a long line of people patiently waiting for their turn, which we join. The smell of meat and charcoal is strong. The smoke coming out of the shack's fireplace hood is dense, and despite the fact that it's not even lunchtime, most customers have a beer sitting in front of them. "It's normal," Mircea reassures me. "You can't have mici without beer."
We gawk at the thumb-long meat chunks in front of us. "Trust me," he says with a smile, "they are dense." I hungrily bite into my first mici. The meat is spongy and grainy, while thin streams of juice and oil burst into my mouth as I take another bite. Chewing mici is as satisfying as popping a large piece of bubblegum in your mouth. I eat my three mici before Mircea is able to finish his, and spend the rest of my time trying not to stare with intense desire at his plate.
There's no queue at this slightly upmarket mici spot in the city's Armenian neighbourhood, which is about a 20-minute walk from Bucharest's bustling downtown. "Don't worry, I have been here many times, and it's a good one," Mircea tells me reassuringly. "It's empty now because a lot of people work in offices around here and they only come down to eat around lunchtime." A man in his early sixties, dressed in sweatpants and a black leather hat, is eating mici while standing at the counter and smiling. He carefully dips the meat into a sauce, takes a small bite, and then puts the meat down to take a moment to savour it.
As I dig into my own sizzling mici—it's larger and thinner than the one at Obor, and the bites are slightly less satisfying—the man tells me, "That's not how you eat mici. You need to use two toothpicks, not one!" He explains that the mici will simply twirl on the toothpick if you use just one. "Use two if you don't want to look like a squirrel," he shouts jokingly.
Aline, the owner, laughs at us as she takes the cooked mici from the grill and puts them in a bowl of dense, brown, oily sauce made out of parsley and fat drippings. She tells us she has been making mici here for the past six years—around 2,000 of them a day. Before she grills the meat, she cooks it in a broth made of water boiled with bones and cartilage. "It gives the meat that extra chewy sensation, you know? People love it and come from all over Bucharest to eat my mici, not like the guys over there," she says, pointing to a grill a couple of hundred yards away from where we are standing.
Our next stop is a mici shop in the Piata Sudului market on the capital's south side. "We are in Romania, not in Germany, so there's no mustard here," says Carmen, the 54-year-old cook, when after I ask her for the sauce. "If you really want it, we have our special sauce over there," she adds, pointing to a large, white bucket where a few customers have impatiently gathered, waiting for their turns to dig in. I take a spoonful, put it on a paper plate drenched in meat juices, and dip the first mici. There's a poppy seed flavour in it, but it's thin enough to allow the taste of the meat to come through with each bite. "What's in it?" I ask naïvely. "It's a secret, of course … I can't tell you," she answers, raising her eyebrows.
Carmen's mici are about a thumb and a half long, larger than most mici found around town. She doesn't use pork meat in the mix because "it makes it heavier." And people seem to like them a lot. In the hour we spend eating and chatting in front of the grill, the queue never stops. As soon as a customer is finished, their spot at the shared tables is immediately filled with new plates of sizzling mici. I ask Carmen how many she makes each day. "A lot," she says. "Other spots around town come buy the meat from us because of our perfect recipe."
Our final stop is Aviatei, in a fancy area north of the city. Everyone around town seems to know this quaint little mici spot not far from one the capital's most beautiful parks. The meat is a little more expensive than in most of the other places around town, but it's worth it. The spongy effect of these mici is at an all-time high. The taste is also slightly different from the others, possibly due to the meat being cooked on a wood-fired grill rather than charcoal. The atmosphere is also more relaxed here; the cook and owner, Valeiru, is smiling and happy to see his customers slowly enjoying his food.
The restaurant was founded 25 years ago, just after the 20-year-long rule of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was brought down by a bloody revolution in 1989. The first owner decided to call his spot "the hunchback" for reasons that nobody seems to remember, not even the staff. It was eventually sold to Valeriu, a real 67-year-old hunchback.
Mircea and I arrive around lunchtime, and Valeriu is moving with the grace of a dancer behind the grill. He unpacks mici and places them on the grill, one after the other. "I make around four or five thousand a day," he tells me with pride.
By the end of the tour, I am so full of mici that I briefly consider becoming a vegetarian. But after consuming about a hundred mici, both Mircea and I can confidently say that we now know the best places in town.