Is Sarajevo where it used to be?
or my heart has just imagined it?
has the river Miljacka dried out?
have my friends forgotten me???
—A poem by Dino Dervishalidovic
Edin Fekovic used to run a restaurant in Sarajevo, now the capital city of Bosnia, but during the recent horrendously bloody civil war, the building that housed his cafe was bombed flat. Where it stood is now a parking lot.He spent four painful years in the Bosnian Army, fighting an ethnic cleansing campaign waged against his people. The enemy's tactics were so brutal that they are now the focus of war crimes trials. The bitter war finally ended in 1995 with a peace accord — and 200,000 dead. He returned to Sarajevo, where the economy lay in ruins like its buildings. "After the war stop, there were no jobs," he explained recently.
So he applied for a program that allowed him to migrate legally to the U.S., and within a year or so had settled in St. Petersburg, where he had friends. Fekovic, 31, learned English and worked various jobs, saving money for his dream. It came true in January, when he opened a new restaurant in his adopted homeland, specializing in Bosnian fare. With 20,000 Bosnians in the Tampa Bay area, he hopes it will be successful.
Traditional Bosnian fare is heavy on grilled meat and smoked beef sausage, hearty meat pies, a surprisingly good handmade bread that is made in a palm-size round shape, and root vegetables, like cabbage and potatoes.
Its cuisine reflects the historical tale of Bosnia itself, which has been overrun by dozens of invaders over its long history, including the Turks in 1463, Austria-Hungary in 1878, Germans and Italians during World War II, then Communists. The food reflects the influences of nearby neighbors, Greece and Turkey, too.
"It's not fake food," Fekovic says.
One item on the menu Americans seem to like, he said, is the Chevapi ground beef sandwich ($5.99), a big fella, pairing two plate-size round pieces of homemade bread with small, homemade beef sausages. A cup of sour cream comes with it as a condiment, and when you spread it over the hot sausage, it melts into the bread. Another dish he has found that Americans will eat is a sort of shish kebob.
English-speakers will have no trouble ordering because the waiter is a native of the United States, and Fekovic, who is usually there, speaks English very well, too.
Some of the other items on the menu, which is written in English, include Cuban with a Bosnian twist ($4.95), grilled chicken with yogurt sauce ($4.95), hotdog or grilled cheese ($1.99), smoked mullet ($7.99), Bosnian-cut New York Strip steak ($11.99), and various types of savory Bosnian pies, made with thin, layered pastry and stuffed with spinach or cheese ($3.99).
A traditional dish people do not seem to want: Bosnian stuffed peppers, made with ground beef, rice and seasonings. Said Fekovic: "I had to take it off the menu because nobody ordered it."
At La Pequeña Colombia, around noon, the low hum of conversation, soccer matches booming from the TV, and the incessant ringing of cell phones set the tone for this tidy little restaurant, which specializes in the cuisine of its owner's native Colombia. Its name translates to mean "Little Colombia."Fabio Orozco emigrated to the United States 12 years ago from Cali, Colombia. He brought with him the love of his native homeland's fare: big, healthy platters of hearty food like pork loin, fried red snapper, liver and corn cakes, and breaded steaks and chicken.
The restaurant does a brisk business. Sometimes at noon, all its red-checked tables are full, and a waiting line snakes out the door and onto the sidewalk of the modest strip shopping center the restaurant shares with a jewelry store and consignment shop.
On the walls are posters of famous Colombian cities, like Santiago de Cali, Narino and Medellin. One says in big letters: Colombia es ... Maravillosa, which translates to "Colombia is Marvelous."
One reason for the restaurant's popularity is that you get a lot of food for very little money. All its generous oval platters come with an entree, salad, rice or beans, and sweet plantains, priced from $3 to $8 each. Some of the platters have additional side dishes right on them, like yucca or eggs. This is not food for calorie counters; it's starchy, fulsome fare that sticks to your ribs.
Orozco said Mexicans living in Tampa like to visit the restaurant and "sample a lot of items on the menu. They try everything."
The fare is close in style and flavor to some of the dishes they are accustomed to in Mexico, and the staff speaks Spanish, so they know they will be understood. The customers are mostly Colombian or natives of other South American countries.
For the record, people who speak only English get along fine because most of the menu items are written in both English and Spanish, and the waitresses are bilingual. If there's a problem, another customer will gladly translate for you.
Some of the dishes Americans unfamiliar with Colombian cuisine might like include a delicious, fresh top flank steak ($7.50), colorful in its tomato-onion and red pepper sauce. It comes with salad, white rice, beans, yucca, fried plantains and potatoes. It tasted divine, and was very tender from hours of slow cooking; the sauce added a big, bright flavor lift. Finish with a slightly sweet coconut flan ($1.50) or ice cream.
Other dishes popular among the restaurant's regulars include strawberry "batidos," or shakes; "empanadas," pastry turnovers stuffed with meat, gravy and potatoes; various fruit juices, like papaya, pineapple or mango; and a full breakfast menu of eggs, rice, arepas, fresh corn cakes or tortillas, and hot chocolate. A popular side order is "buñuelos," fried cheese puffs ($1). Also, try chorizo, which is a spicy sausage beloved of South Americans. It's only $2 and it comes with corn cakes.
What newcomers might not enjoy would be the grilled tongue in sauce ($8), which is exactly what you might imagine.
For an authentic taste of Colombia, try the popular sodas made there, which come in a variety of flavors like pineapple, orange or something called a Pony Malta, which we will certainly order next time, just to see what it is.
There's a nice to-go counter that features quick items you can take out, and a cooler with cold sodas, flan and breads to take home. Service is inevitably fast and friendly, and it's a swell place for students to practice their Spanish language skills among kind native speakers that patiently correct sorry pronunciation — no matter how badly you massacre their beautiful language.
Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.