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It's said that if you find yourself in Sarajevo — especially in Bašcaršija, or the Old Town district — you will eat the best cevapi in the world. But for those of us in the Valley whose immediate travel plans don't include a trip to the capital of Bosnia, there's Old Town Sarajevo.
Considered a national dish in Bosnia, cevapi, for the rest of us, is a massive and delicious undertaking of sausage and bread. Nestled between two warm disks of golden lepinja, a chewy and moist nook-and-cranny flatbread nearly the size of a dinner plate, are garlicky grilled sausages (five, 10, or a staggering 15 of them, depending on the order) made of a lamb and beef mix. Served with onions, sour cream, and an eggplant-and-peppers spread, the best way to eat cevapi is with your hands — not sandwich-style, but by ripping off chunks of the bread, wrapping up pieces of sausage in them, and then dipping the two into one or more the sides. The taste is a wonderful blend of saltiness from the sausage, sweetness from the onions, sour cream, or veggies, and delectable soft bread.
"In Bosnia, we eat bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," says Old Town Sarajevo manager Sladjana Ahmetovic. "And the meals, heavy on meats and bread, are meant to last throughout the day."
3411 W. Northern Ave.
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Region: North Phoenix
Ahmetovic operates the West Phoenix restaurant with owner/chef Seida Turulja. Originally from Velika Kladuša, a small town in northwest Bosnia, Turulja came to the United States in 1999, when she and her husband operated Caffe Sarajevo (the restaurant's former name) for 11 years. When the couple split in 2011, Turulja went into business for herself, changed the establishment's name, remodeled the interior, and refocused it as restaurant rather than marketplace.
And it is at Turulja's version of Old Town Sarajevo that those looking to experience a small, affordable selection of delectable Bosnian favorites (nothing on the menu is over $9) can fill up on grilled meats, stuffed pitas, and soups — all with the likelihood that a to-go box will be in order.
Forget the appetizers — there aren't any. Not that you'll need them. The best way to eat at Old Town Sarajevo is to bring along a few hungry (and non-vegetarian) friends and ask Ahmetovic to set you up with several key dishes to share. The food is most reminiscent of Turkish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Central European cuisines, and all the grilled meals come with Turulja's stellar homemade lepinja. Making about 100 of them daily, freezing them, and then, when it's time, grilling them along with the meat to soak up its flavor, Ahmetovic tells me Turulja's hearty bread is what sets the restaurant apart from others in the area. I'll go a step further and say it may be the best in the Valley.
Stuffed inside the round lepinja, the sizable grilled-meat dishes can be ripped and dipped or, if requested, cut into giant, pie-like slices. From the cevapi's exceptional Bosnian sausages (which Turulja gets from Oakland) to the same meat in patty form in the pljeskavica, to the wonderfully spicy and juicy veal hot dogs, there's a lot to like. There's also a colossal pileci (chicken sandwich with tender meat, mushrooms, and mozzarella) and an equally large, highly satisfying kebab — like a gyro but on the Bosnian bread, along with lettuce, tomato, and Turulja's tzatziki-style sauce.
When it comes to the Bosnian version of a steak sandwich, Turulja takes a literal approach. In place of a Bosnian favorite made with veal, a full-size, bone-in grilled steak, chewy and gristle-y, is served with generous toppings of mushrooms and onions between two pieces of lepinja. The only meat to defy the size of the bread at Old Town Sarajevo by sticking out over the edges, it's either one of the biggest steak sandwiches in the Valley or a steak dinner masquerading as a sandwich. And for its wallet-friendly price tag of $9, it might not be the best cut of meat you've had, but it sure as hell won't leave you hungry.
For those who prefer their protein floating in a home-style soup, Turulja serves three kinds. There is a pleasing creamy chicken version with peas, okra, carrots, and onions called Earl Soup, a better traditional brown bean stew, and an especially enjoyable and comforting Bosnian meat stew called Bosanski lonac. With no specific recipe, this centuries-old Bosnian specialty of meat and vegetables has many adaptions, cooked by everyone from the country's richest to its poorest residents. Turulja's version comes packed with large pieces of tender beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and other ingredients for a highly rustic, soup-as-a-meal dish made more delicious when chunks of her housemade Bosnian bread are added to the bowl.
Pitas, made fresh every morning and unlike what many Americans may think of as pocket bread, are, for Bosnians, flaky filled pastries rolled in a spiral and around the same size as the lepinja (the word pita translates to "pie"). Turulja offers three varieties and tells me they are so popular with customers that she's considering selling frozen versions of them. After a few bites of the warm, pillowy creations, I understood why. Nearly as famous in the country as cevapi, and my personal favorite, is the popular burek, a meat-filled pita of seasoned beef. There's also a slightly sour cheese pita (sirnica) Turulja fills with feta and cottage cheese and one with spinach and cheese called a zeljanica.
After a big meal of bread and meat, the last thing you may be thinking of is dessert. But know that sweet endings like baklava, tulumba (a favorite Bosnian dessert of fried batter soaked in syrup, served cold, and resembling a Twinkie with ridges), and sampita (a thin, yellow sponge cake with a meringue topping) are available and should satisfy nicely.
Nearly hidden between a smoke shop and a hair salon in an aging strip mall, Old Town Sarajevo could easily be a drive-by, but don't let the exterior fool you.
Turulja tells me that when she remodeled her restaurant, she wanted her customers to re-live the real Old Town Sarajevo, which might be why the interior looks as if it could have been ripped from the pages of a travel guide — it was made to resemble the Bašcaršija, the Old Town market sector where the city was founded. Linen-topped tables and wood chairs are surrounded by what appears to be entrances to shops or homes, done in white-washed walls, dark wood, and stone, and fashioned with doors, fences, and slanted roofs. There's even a working replica of the town's famous fountain, Sebilj, in the center of the room, along with décor items like Bosnian cooking implements, paintings, and a copper tile of Vucko, the little wolf and mascot of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
Here, the restaurant's patrons, mostly Bosnians from the surrounding area, gather. There are groups of males enjoying cups of strong Turkish coffee and spirited conversation, families settling in for a meal and enjoying glasses of Cocta, the Slovenian beverage whose main ingredient comes from the dog rose hip and which, Ahmetovic says, is the Bosnian version of Coca-Cola, and several loners popping in to pick up to-go orders.
"They tell me my restaurant smells like home," Turulja says of her customers.
I just think it smells like it's time to eat.