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Café Pita + on Westheimer at Wilcrest is the city's hottest new Bosnian restaurant. Okay, it's the city's only Bosnian restaurant. There was another one for a while called Café Europe on Fountainview, but it no longer serves food. Now it's a Bosnian coffeehouse.
Houston, TX 77042
Grilled sardines: $6.99
Stuffed cabbage: $7.99
A lot of Bosnians fled to the United States in the mid-1990s during the war. Now, a decade later, Bosnian espresso bars and restaurants are popping up around the country. St. Louis seems to have the most, followed by Detroit.
At Houston's Café Pita +, the specialty is the Bosnian national dish -- cevapcici-- which is a hamburger that looks like a hot dog. To make it, you grind beef and lamb, add pureed onions and mix in whatever other vegetables, herbs and spices you like. Then you form the mixture into spicy ground meat cylinders and grill them.
The first time I ever had cevapcici was at the home of some Balkan friends. Sabina, who is Bosnian, mixed up the meat and formed it into fingers, while her husband Boris, a Croatian, cooked them outside on the gas grill. When the meat was almost done, he put pita bread on top of it to toast, then we ate the meat wrapped in pieces of warm pita with pureed red pepper and onions. Boris told me that Bosnians and Croatians grill cevapcici in the backyard the way Americans cook hamburgers and hot dogs. I loved the stuff.
Then Boris and Sabina moved away from Houston, leaving me without a cevapcici connection. Recently, some other Bosnian friends told me about Café Pita +. The cevapcici there aren't cooked outside on a grill, but they are served on authentic lepinja, a spongy Bosnian bread that's like a cross between pita and focaccia. The bread is split open before it's laid over the sizzling meat. An order of cevapcici at Café Pita + gets you six meat cylinders sandwiched between the top and bottom of the hot and slightly greasy lepinja bun.
The first time there, I almost made the mistake of picking up the whole thing like a hamburger. Don't do it -- your cevaps will end up on your shirt. My Bosnian friends demonstrated the proper technique. First, you tear off a piece of the flat bread and slather it with the red and white spreads that came in little condiment cups on the plate.
The red stuff is a luscious pureed pepper-and-eggplant paste called ajvar. The white one is a dairy spread called kajmak. Real kajmak is a fermented clotted cream that's made throughout the Middle East. It's not available here, so Bosnians in America whip up a reasonable facsimile with cream cheese, butter and feta.
Once you spread the hunk of lepinja with ajvar and kajmak, you are ready to add one of the cevapcici and a healthy topping of chopped raw onions. Then you roll the whole thing up and take a big bite. Along with our cevapcici, we also ordered pljeskavice, a patty made of similarly seasoned meat, but cooked flat on the griddle instead of rolled into cylinders.
As with the cevapcici, you cut off a chunk of meat and the bread underneath it and assemble a sandwich using the spreads and raw onions. It seems odd to cut up the patty since it looks so much like a hamburger. The flavor of both of these ground-meat specialties is a fascinating cross between an American hamburger on a bun and a Middle Eastern kebab on pita. Cevap, as it's known for short, even sounds like "kebab."
Bosnian cuisine is a hybrid of two of my favorite food traditions, Slavic and Middle Eastern. For four centuries, Slavic Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire. During the period of Turkish rule, Slavic-speaking Muslims became the dominant social group. The menu at Café Pita + provides an interesting snapshot of how modern Bosnian cooking has evolved.
Ottoman rule in Bosnia ended in 1878, but much of the population remained Muslim. As a result, pork is seldom seen. At Café Pita +, pepperoni is one of the pizza options, and there's a cobb salad with a little prosciutto, and that's about it. Our Bosnian friends are nonpracticing Muslims, and they don't have any problem with eating pork. But when I asked them to order a typical Sarajevo-style pizza at Café Pita +, they skipped the pepperoni and went for the topping called soujuk, a spicy dried beef that reminded me of softened jerky.
We also tried the Café Pita + "meza" plate. I usually think of hummus, baba ghanoush and other such Middle Eastern dips when I think of a meza plate. But the one at Café Pita + looks more like an Italian antipasti platter with an assortment of olives, pickled peppers, feta, soujuk, salami, cheese and slices of a black dried beef the menu calls "pastrami." In fact, the meat is Bosnian pastrma.
The pastrami you get at the supermarket is smoked corned beef. Bosnian pastrma, on the other hand, is a highly spiced air-cured beef descended from the Turkish pastirma, which means "pressed meat." The recipe calls for meat to be pressed to remove the water, then seasoned with a paste of cumin, fenugreek, hot chiles and garlic and allowed to air-dry. Beef is the most common meat used, but in Central Asia, pastirma is also made from lamb, goat, camel and water buffalo. Bosnian pastrma is traditionally served with the Bosnian brown bean soup called grah.
The brown bean soup I got at Café Pita + was thickened with flour and served without any meat. It was the one dish I tried at Café Pita + that was too bland. Next time, I'll get it with some pastrma on the side.
Fresh sardines grilled over an open flame with lemon potatoes was an unusual entrée that I want to try again. I ate the lightly charred little fish with the potatoes and some ajvar. It was a strong and satisfying flavor that went great with the cold beer I was drinking.
While meza and cevap come from the Turkish side of Bosnian cuisine, the Bosnian stuffed cabbage called sarma tastes exactly like my Eastern European grandmother's holupki. It's made with a beef-and-rice filling that's wrapped up in cabbage leaves and stewed in tomato sauce with sauerkraut. I pretended the lepinja was my grandma's homemade bread and dunked it in the sauce when the cabbage rolls were gone.
The rolled-up dessert crepes called palacinci are exactly like the ones my mother made me when I was in grade school -- except Mom filled ours with jelly, while the ones at Pita + contain chocolate and hazelnut spread.
Café Pita + is an unassuming little spot with a patio that overlooks a parking lot. The service can be sporadic, and most of the patrons seem to speak Bosnian and know the owners, so don't expect much in the way of a welcome. But if you like both Eastern European and Middle Eastern foods, I predict you are going to love this place.
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