The restaurant is located in a rat’s ass of a neighborhood in Long Island City, a cul-de-sac that time forgot with the abject look of a Hopper painting. Rickety houses sided with brick-textured asphalt shingles sag against each other like passed-out drunks; a cinder-block warehouse flaunts a fenced yard of rusting pipe like some DIA Foundation installation. Just south of the restaurant, a wee green-and-white cottage might have been transported from an Irish heath. Need I say this is just the kind of neighborhood I’d love to live in?
There’s no disguising that two-year-old Bulgara was once a warehouse, despite folksy overhangs of red terra-cotta above the door and windows. Inside, the high ceiling sports painted wood beams and the walls are decorated with embroidered ethnographic costumes, assorted baking pans, and brass cowbells that range in size from tiny to humongous. When we first arrived, the staff fidgeted around the empty room, and each trencher table sprouted a somber black “Reserved” sign. It turned out the Bulgarian chanteuse Tania Bloeva was appearing at the restaurant that evening, with a repertoire ranging from tear-stained ballads to pumped-up disco. What would she think, we wondered, as her limousine pulled up in front of this obscure frontier outpost?
The host graciously offered to seat us at the bar. There we enjoyed the broad sweep of appetizing dishes that a mehana, or Bulgarian tavern, offers. Some leaned toward neighboring Turkey, including the diced salad shopska ($5). Unlike its Ottoman counterpart shepherd salad, the heap was entirely concealed by shaved feta, making it look like a slow-moving glacier. Also nearly Turkish was kiopolu, a smoky bread dip of eggplant, garlic, and—here’s the Slavic touch—roasted red peppers. More uniquely Bulgarian was a saucer of julienne stomach tripe ($6), lightly sautéed in butter stained red with paprika. Beef tongue and chicken livers done nearly the same way were equally tasty.
It is often the habit of Bulgarians dining in mehanas to knock back a tumbler of the harsh brandy called rakia with their shopska, getting slightly toasted at the outset of the meal. Considering the excellence of the appetizers, you might be tempted to do the same. But then you’d miss the wonderful sides that accompany the meaty and voluminous entrées, including a lake of searing red-pepper dip, a well-seasoned mound of white beans vinaigrette, and a salad of crushed spuds and purple onions hosed with white vinegar.
Consisting of various forms of ground meat, many of the entrées are indistinguishable to the uninitiated. There’s karnache ($11), a long pork sausage served three to a plate; kebabche, a skinless beef-pork sausage shaped like a shotgun shell; and kufte, an onion-laced pork patty that gives the American hamburger a run for its money. Skip the rubbery Weiner schnitzel in favor of the mixed grill ($15), which includes a kebabche, a karnache, a thin pork cutlet, and a pork shish kebab, all grilled over flame but not, alas, over charcoal. Oddly, there’s a vegetarian entrée every bit as good as the meat-bearing ones. Mish-mash ($6) is the mellifluous name of a close-textured scramble of peppers, tomatoes, and eggs. The menu doesn’t bother to mention there’s some feta in there too. But then, good salty feta is so ubiquitous at Bulgara, you’ll even find it on the French fries.