Burek Central used to be Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where a half-dozen Serbian bars served up the fabulous flaky pies called bureks, as big and round as spare tires and bulging with cheese and spinach. Now, with the influx of Bosnian Muslim refugees and other Balkan immigrants to western Queens, the burek balance has tipped in our favor. But until a month ago, the bureks I’d sampled were mainly in the disappointing tubular or turnover shapes, one-person pies dominated by crust, denying you the pleasure of sharing them pizza-style with friends—or having leftovers the next day.
My luck changed when a Serb friend pointed me in the direction of House of Pizza, a place virtually indistinguishable from dozens of other neighborhood pizza parlors in Astoria, unless you happen to flip open the menu to the last page and note the section entitled “From Mediterranean Cuisine.” Three bureks are listed: cheese, spinach and cheese, and ground meat. As in Milwaukee, the pies are massive round filo constructions, every bit as good as I remember. A 90-degree wedge will set you back $3; an entire burek costs $12. Ask for a whole pie and it’s usually baked to order. The spinach burek rules, with a cheesy-earthy balance of flavors, a hint of dill, and a winning moistness that survives reheating. The proper accompaniment is House of Pizza’s coffee mug of homemade yogurt ($1), fresh-tasting and unapologetically sour. Man, I could eat bureks and yogurt every day.
The remainder of the “Mediterranean” menu—the geographic designation may be a tip of the hat to the perceived Turkish origin of the cuisine—features grilled meats on one hand and savory, meat-stuffed vegetable dishes on the other. A handsome trio of cabbage leaves (sarma, $6) comes filled with ground lamb and plump grains of rice deposited in a parsley-flecked broth, while a veal-and-potato goulash boasts a tangy yellow gravy spiked with sorrel. On the grill side find the usual Slavic ground meat formulations, including the skinless sausage named cevapi (adequate serving $5, gigantic serving $8), and the hamburger-like pljeskavica, both flaunting onions ground up with the meat, and both sided with the coarse red-pepper relish called ivar and a turban-shaped loaf of homemade bread brought to the table still warm. There’s also an impressive mixed grill of beef heart, veal, and tiny lamb kidneys. The tender kidneys steal the show.
Not unexpectedly, given the excellence of the burek, the pizza’s pretty damn good, too.
Located in the shadow of the inconsequential-sounding Linden Shop, a subway repair facility that sprawls across 50 acres, CONEY ISLAND JOE’S (1572 Linden Boulevard, Brooklyn, 718-342-5959) is a lunch counter that delivers hot dogs in pairs (“double dog”—$3.50) on a length of baguette. Garnish it from the wonderful condiment island, including sweet pickle relish, sliced sour pickles, hot cherry peppers, and pickled green tomatoes, and pretend you’re eating a Chicago red hot. The menu also offers a decent cheese steak and a superb Italian hot-sausage hero. The garishly striped premises are half the fun.
No need to ask why, in this economic downturn, pizza has become so popular with upscale restaurateurs: A cheap ball of dough + a minuscule strew of toppings = a high-priced “individual pie.” Though some of these pizzas can be excellent, so far that’s not the case at GONZO (140 West 13th Street, 645-4606), where a first visit found us instead digging the appetizers and main courses. Best was a spice-rubbed pork loin, meltingly tender and generously served, and a frito misto made with delicate pieces of squid and shrimp expertly fried. Favorite appetizer was a garlicked puree of white beans, though it didn’t seem too Italian.