Balkan Foods will satisfy the most intense of meat cravings
Late on a recent Saturday morning, after some vigorous Friday night merrymaking, my roommate Einar and I stumbled out of our beds. We were both desperately in need of a solid, restorative breakfast but lacked the ingredients, not to mention the mental wherewithal, to make one at home. We decided to venture out to the nearby Serbian delicatessen, Balkan Foods, which had recently equipped itself with a charcoal grill and a few small tables.
Balkan Foods has been part of the eclectic mosaic of shops along St-Hubert, just north of Jean-Talon, for a couple of years. Einar and I have passed by it almost every day on our way to or from the metro. One of us would stop by only occasionally to pick up a dense, Balkan-style salami or some grilling sausages. The shop was always eerily empty and quiet. Not so on this February Saturday. Balkan was abuzz, full of chattering ex-Yugoslavians, drawn no doubt by the meaty morsels sizzling on the new grill.
Aside from the occasional jar of ajvar—a relish made of bell peppers, eggplant, garlic and chilies—I have never experienced the cuisine of what was once Yugoslavia. Lucky for us, particularly given our foggy mental state, Balkan Foods had a straightforward menu with large photos of each item. Our gaze was immediately attracted by a picture of a bun full of little fat fingers of ground meat. These fingers, we learned, are called cevapi, a popular Balkan street food. The menu proposes a bun stuffed with either six or 10 of these skinless sausages for $6 and $9 respectively. The larger one can be ordered with fries and salad ($12). This was the option that our hangovers demanded.
Though a carnivorous glutton I am, the quantity of meat with which I was confronted was daunting. The cevapi were piled high inside a flat, dense bun with a pleasantly leathery crust. The standard condiments provided include a scoop of ajvar, a scoop of kajmak—a Balkan-style cultured cream—and a pile of chopped raw onion. The cevapi were quite tasty—well seasoned and moist, with a definite charcoal fragrance. Together with the condiments, they formed a mountain of bold, basic flavours that really hit the spot. The friendly, rotund Serb who was running the grill proclaimed that the only thing we were missing was beer (indeed!) and lamented that he was unable to sell us any.
I returned a few days later for a takeaway—a strategy that would allow me to have my food with beer. I ordered a pljeskavica, or Balkan burger ($8), which used the same leathery bun that delighted me so the last time. You can put anything you want in your pljeskavica—lettuce, tomatoes, sauerkraut, pickled pepper, ajvar—but the grill master suggested I have it only with spicy cream cheese—a wonderfully pungent mix of feta, kajmak, garlic and hot peppers. Any additional toppings, he explained, would mask the taste of the charcoal. I am glad to have obeyed this wise man, as the resulting burger, though austere, was mouthwateringly delicious. The patty, which had a diameter close to that of a small pizza, was very moist, despite being relatively thin. It burst with smokey charcoal flavour, perfectly accented by the garlicky cheese.
I also ordered a pita bread with sausage ($3.50), which was superfluous after the immense burger. What I got was a Greek-style pita wrapped around two thin grilled sausages, with a selection of toppings. In a hunger-induced stupor, I asked for tomato, lettuce, coleslaw and drizzle of mayo. In retrospect, I should have sought the wise Serb’s advice, as I found my own selection to have been less than optimal. The sausages were good, if a bit plain—they could’ve used a boost from a more judiciously chosen array of toppings.
For dessert, I requested a krempita—a custard-filled square of flaky pastry—a box of which was prominently displayed in the glass refrigerator. However, my friend the Serb, once again looking after my best interests, told me bluntly that these were not good. He suggested I try one another day, when they are fresh. Word.
Aliments Balkan FoodsAddress: 7333 St-Hubert
Phone: (514) 273-7239
Hours: MON-WED 9 a.m.–6 p.m., THU-FRI 9 a.m.–9 p.m., SAT 9 a.m.–6 p.m., SUN 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
Best features: Grilled pljeskavica and cevapi
Alcohol: Alas no
Wheelchair Access: No
Vegetarian friendly: Vegetarian's do not exist in the Balkan Foods universe
Credit cards: No
Price: Sandwiches $3–$9, combo plates $10–$12
Rating: ***1/2 out of ****