Chow Bella

Bourek From Balkan Bakery Is One of Phoenix's Great Pastries

A spinach bourek cut. Jasenko Osmic likes to dip them in the Balkan Bakery's tart yogurt.
A spinach bourek cut. Jasenko Osmic likes to dip them in the Balkan Bakery's tart yogurt. Chris Malloy
The range of forms that flour and water can take is astounding. One form is the bourek. Bourek is a filled pastry shaped like a butterfly’s tongue. Hot filling pipes through its tight, sausage-like coil of dough. The pastry has old roots in the eastern Mediterranean. Balkan Bakery, a family spot in north Phoenix, bakes dark rye bread, crescent-shaped pretzels, baklava, and, best of all, a hypnotically comforting bourek.

Jasenko Osmic, co-owner of the bakery, grew up eating bourek in his native Bosnia. He has run the bakery with his father, Bakir, and sister Aldijana for 10 years. Balkan Bakery serves a range of Bosnian breads, pastries, and coffee. Back in Sarajevo, where the family lived until 1997, they, like many others, baked bourek in their home. At Balkan Bakery, the Osmics produce a homestyle bourek.

Jasenko prefers a homestyle bourek to what you might find in a Bosnian bakery. “A lot more grease, lard, and less ingredients are put inside,” he says of commercial versions. “You don’t get a lot of filling. You get mostly dough. When you eat ours, every bite you get the filling.”

click to enlarge Jasenko Osmic standing before his bakery's bounty. - CHRIS MALLOY
Jasenko Osmic standing before his bakery's bounty.
Chris Malloy
The Osmics make a bourek that varies base to peak. The pale bottom is soft and moist where its cheese has leaked during baking. The burnished brown of a soft pretzel colors the top. A coiled shape gives the dough’s topography peaks and valleys. As you eat toward the middle, each bite varies in texture. Soft. Hard. Bits in between. A simple but rich filling bursts from flaky, coiled tubes of phyllo dough.

One of the amazing things about bourek is that, somehow,  it isn’t all over America.

Balkan Bakery cranks out bourek. Jasenko peals them out of the oven right as the bakery opens at 8 a.m. The three Osmics are the bakery’s only employees. They make all boureks themselves – not to mention the breads, pretzels, and desserts. The work requires long hours and focus, muscle memory and strength, determination as the day’s ninth hour zips past and you’re still shoveling steaming dough Frisbees from the oven.

“This is one of the staple foods of Bosnia,” Jasenko says. “You eat it breakfast, lunch. It’s an all-day food.”

click to enlarge A batch of boureks just out of the oven. - CHRIS MALLOY
A batch of boureks just out of the oven.
Chris Malloy
Balkan Bakery offers three kinds of bourek. There’s cheese, beef, and spinach. Spinach is king. It’s made of spinach, cottage cheese, and phyllo dough. No spices. No salt.

There is magnetism, too, in witnessing a bourek’s birth.

Behind the counter, Jasenko slicks vegetable oil over a steel table. He then stretches homemade phyllo dough, made with high-gluten flour, to a dashing thinness – thin as an oak leaf, thin as a thought – and drapes it over the table like a sail.

Dough covers the table from rim to rim. He cuts off excess, leaving a phyllo rectangle the exact proportions as the tabletop. He knives down the middle, bisects the dough. With a spatula, he rapidly flicks spinach-cheese mixture onto the dough.

Each tiny line of mixture lands with a slippery plop. Soon, a green-white column of filling lines an edge of each dough patch.

click to enlarge Rocking and rolling out some bourek. - CHRIS MALLOY
Rocking and rolling out some bourek.
Chris Malloy
Jasenko rolls the first like a rug. Filling practically bursts from the center. The dough tube, now, is crammed so tightly with filling that it seems to push desperately against the thin phyllo walls, an out-of-breath swimmer surging for the surface of a pool. Jasenko winds the tube into a tight, hose-like spiral. Oil slicks its skin. After 30 minutes in the oven, spinach bourek is ready.

Jasenko shovels out the zeljianica ("spinach bourek" in Bosnian). He moves a batch of eight to a cooling rack, then a warming case. They sell for $5.75 a piece. If you had a colorwheel with all the possible grades of brown, these boureks would show just about all of them. A warming light casts them in a yellow glow. Jasenko doesn't even pause to admire them as they sit, hot and newborn.

click to enlarge A tower of bourek. - CHRIS MALLOY
A tower of bourek.
Chris Malloy
Early customers keep trickling in. Today, as traffic to the shop picks up, boureks will fly from the vertical case.

Jasenko gets back to making more.

Balkan Bakery. 1107 East Bell Road, #16; 602-996-4598.
Tuesday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; closed Monday.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy