Bosnian Burgers


Mirza Huskic could be James Beard’s twin brother. Framed in the carry-out window of Bosna-Express, he surveys his domain aproned and smiling: a few folding chairs set under an ailanthus tree and, wedged against the building, a handsome backseat from a late-model car, seat belts intact. So deliriously good is his pljeskavica ($5.50), you’d better buckle up.

At your order, he drags a meat patty the size of a hubcap from the small refrigerator. Bejeweled with fat, it glistens like agate. Flopping the meat on the grill, he points to a chair under the tree—assigning you a seat like an elementary schoolteacher—as the patty starts to chatter and shoot up plumes of smoke. The cooking interval gives you a chance to admire the landscape. Up above looms the Forest Avenue M station, its rickety waiting room hanging below like a goiter. You’ll watch a long time before a train appears. Underneath, three haphazardly intersecting avenues—Forest, Putnam, and Fairview—enclose a grassy triangle furnished with a pair of green park benches.

More than a dozen shops face the triangle. Working clockwise, there’s a Polish butcher, a green-awninged Montenegrin social club, a halal butcher catering to European Muslims, a Bosnian bodega called Europa Grocery, a newsstand and deli that date from a much earlier era, and Caffe Ulqin, an espresso bar named after a seaside resort in Montenegro populated mainly by Albanians. Inside you can make out several tables of men playing cards and smoking cigarettes, although an emphatic “CLOSED” sign discourages you from joining them. A caffeine-desperate friend who barged in one day reported that the coffee was good, but there was no place to sit.

Back at Bosna-Express, Huskic pulls a somun out of the bread safe—a puffier cousin of the pita, made on the premises and so soft you could use it as a pillow. Concentrating, he slices the bread longitudinally with a sharp knife, then transfers the still sizzling patty from the grill. If you’ve told him “everything” in response to his questioning glance, he piles on onions; a chopped salad of tomatoes, green peppers, and cukes; and competing dabs of yogurt and sour cream. Though the latter comes from a carton, the yogurt is homemade, and some of the best you’re likely to taste in this lifetime. A half-pint can be purchased for $1. And the burger? Its oniony amalgam of lamb and beef proves an ideal absorbent for the grease smoke, and the creamy and crunchy toppings are its natural allies. It’s so big, I’ve never been able to finish one without assistance.

Bosna-Express is the sort of fast-food establishment known as a “cevabdzinica” in the Balkans—a place that specializes in grilled-meat snacks. Accordingly, there are other offerings, including veal cutlets, chicken shish kebabs, a chicken breast that’s just plain boring, and cevapi—skinless sausages that taste very much like the burger. All come on a somun dressed identically to the burger, although the cevapi can also be ordered naked, $2.50 for four. Baby beef liver is also mentioned on the painted bill of fare, though I’ve never been able to get it.

Munching reflectively in this shady Ridgewood enclave may induce questions about how a microcosmic version of the southern Balkan states came to be created here. But I didn’t stop there. Appreciating my pljeskavica, I cast my mind back further to the First World War, wondering, If Archduke Ferdinand, plumed hat squarely on his head, came driving down Putnam Avenue today, would any of these folks bother to take a potshot at him?

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