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Leapin' Lepinja!

Bosnian burger joint finds a new crib in Long Island City

Once upon a time, there was a wee hamburger stand hidden beneath the Forest Avenue M station in Ridgewood, Queens. Looking like a giant in a fairy tale, a big bald-headed guy stood at the window, grilling hubcap-size burgers over real charcoal. Actually, he was grilling pljeskavica, the Bosnian answer to hamburgers, featuring a beef-lamb patty flopped on a rustic homemade bun, garnished with shredded veggies and a creamy white sauce, handily one-upping the Whopper. Earlier this year, rumors began circulating that the stand—whose sole accommodations were bench seats ripped from cars, seat belts intact, placed under the drooping ailanthus trees—was spawning an actual restaurant in the far-off kingdom of Long Island City.

Well, the rumors have become fact, and now there's another Bosna Express, located two doors down from a mosque in a neighborhood that's difficult to find, even for veteran navigators of the Queens grid. (Hint to drivers: The restaurant is on the block south of 31st Avenue, but 12th Street goes the wrong way, so you have to circle around.) A funeral was ongoing when we finally found it, with mourners spilling out onto the mosque's green porch and eventually working their way over to the restaurant. The new Bosna Express occupies the parlor floor of a small apartment house, and the decor might remind you of a Midwestern church basement, with yellow walls and an assortment of mismatched seating.

The menu mainly presents Bosnian peasant fare, refreshing in its simplicity and directness, though a few extraneous dishes and some downright ambitious ones have been added to the menu, including, respectively, fried mozzarella sticks and a mushroom-heaped veal cutlet sided with rosemary-baked potatoes. As with the original stand, it's the peasant fare that's most compelling, comprising Eastern European standards with Middle Eastern flair. In addition to pljeskavica ($6.95), there are cevapi, squat skinless sausages presented on a bed of onions, made from the same rubbery and smoky ground-meat mixture as the burgers. They're irresistible, especially when dipped in ajvar, a puree of red peppers pickled in-house, or kajmak (pronounced "kay-muck"), a super-thickened sauce of milk and cream something like créme fraîche. There's also a goulash (gulas, $7.95) that bests that of Greenpoint Polish restaurants just the other side of Newtown Creek, via a reddish-brown gravy long on body and style. The gulas is served with two scoops of plain-ish mashed potatoes and a wonderful homemade bread that looks like a pregnant pita and goes by the name of lepinja.

Take two: A "hamburger" and cervapi
photo: Claudia Ghetu
Take two: A "hamburger" and cervapi

Probably the best dish on the menu is grah ($6.95), a white-bean stew that tastes a lot like Campbell's Bean With Bacon, except there's no bacon, of course. Instead, it derives much of its flavor from hunks of smoked beef, which make the bean stew a filling meal. There are also stuffed cabbage leaves called sarma, enfolding a meat-and-rice mixture that's probably heavier on the ground meat than it needs to be, and a handful of grilled kebabs, presented as lepinja sandwiches or on platters.

As I sat in the comfy dining room, surveying a scene of skullcapped patrons and frolicking children massed around a foosball machine, there was only one thing I regretted. Though the food is equally splendid at the new Bosna Express, you can't sit on car seats beneath the ailanthus trees.

 
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