It'd be easy to take I-17 to Thunderbird, and head east to Bosnian Atmosphere on 19th Avenue. But to do so would mean to pass up one of the city's most interesting stretches of retail. If it's not on the north portion of this road, we don't need it. Where else can you find the Direct Casket Outlet? Or the Glowing Embers Firewood, Beef and Buffalo Jerky store? Then there's the Sacred Skin tattoo parlor, S&M Smoke Shop, Fascinations Sexy Superstore, and Desert Rat Off Road Center, fronted by a monster truck named Scarlett Bandit perched on tires taller than my SUV.
And if we didn't take the slow road to Bosnian Atmosphere, we'd never learn that there's a service called Discount Divorce. Slogan: "When 'Til Death Do You Part Is Taking Too Long."
Going too fast, we also might not find the cafe, hidden as it is between a TV repair shop and a Laundromat. There's little to indicate what's behind the cafe's dark windows, save a sign proclaiming "Balkan" and a placard listing a du jour entree in Bosnian.
Certainly the clientele inside is taking it slow, lounging on scuffed purple fabric chairs under wobbly ceiling fans that barely manage to stir the stifling heat (air conditioning isn't on the menu). The sole waitress apologizes for the wait; everything here is fashioned from scratch. No worries -- I'm enjoying watching a table of two next to me. The young men are having a high old time at lunch, shrieking happily to what I imagine is a hilarious Bosnian joke. Or perhaps the seven empty bottles of beer in front of them have brought on the glee.
Svjeza kupus salata is described simply as cabbage salad, but it's surprisingly exciting. I love the sprinkle of black pepper, the light mist of oil, the spritz of lemon juice and ripe tomato. Kisela salata is more dramatic, stuffed pickled peppers with tart sauerkraut.
Too bad the kitchen sold all the zeljanica (phyllo stuffed with spinach) at breakfast. Must be a cultural thing to start the day with bitter greens. But burek fills in just fine, a football-size phyllo dumpling packed with chunks of chewy beef under a dollop of bright orange paprika purée. It's almost as good as the cafe's signature cevapi, a thrilling sandwich of sturdy, grilled ground beef sausage links and white onion between lepina, a pitalike bread. I order the small size and it rivals a hoagie at just $3; the large must feed an entire family.
No one's going hungry with stews, either, big, bubbling crocks of mildly seasoned comfort food blending typical ingredients (chicken or beef with vegetables) alongside the extraordinary (okra soup chunked with beef and swirled with sour cream).
I get some coaching again when the waitress tries to explain a special unnamed dessert she'd like me to try. "It's like cake," she says. "It's big. You'll like it since you've never tried our food before." It arrives, and it's just baklava. But it's also some of the best baklava I've ever eaten, sweet without being sticky, impossibly light and flaky-crusted. She doesn't even attempt to explain orah torta bomba, opting instead just to send out a plate of the rich cream cake capped with crunchy walnuts. Another tiny cup of mud-thick Bosnian coffee spiked with sugar cubes, and I could see spending a long time lazing away in this cafe.
But I need to get going. It's almost closing time at Machine Gun Kelly's weapon emporium, just a few blocks away, and I'm already thinking about my next dangerous food mission.