Something a Serbian-American friend once told me stuck in my head. “In Astoria, all the former Yugoslavians live side by side. Whatever part they played in old conflicts is left behind in the old country. They all speak the same language and eat the same food, and no one asks in the butcher shop, ‘Are you a Croat?’ ‘Are you a Serb?’, or ‘Are you a Bosnian Muslim?'”
Indeed, eastern Astoria has become a wonderland of Balkan food and culture since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the cessation of Bosnian hostilities in 1995. The corner of 42nd Street and 30th Avenue is a particularly rich hotbed of transplanted culture. Black Bull Meat Market (42-10 30th Avenue) anchors the neighborhood, and it’s just the sort of butcher shop my friend was talking about, displaying homemade sausages and smoked meats in the refrigerated window case. Best of all is suho meso, a baseball bat of soft beef jerky rimmed with yellow fat, used most prominently to season a mellow stew of white navy beans.
The same corner also hosts a pair of restaurants, and I hope I’m not betraying the spirit of my friend’s remarks by telling you they’re owned by Bosnians, for whom the memory of massacres in places like Srebrenica must still be fresh, though not spoken of to outsiders. Stari Most was once a regular neighborhood tavern, an old-fashioned bar with a brass rail that runs along one side of the room, and seating at red-leather banquettes and couches on the periphery, all in pristine condition despite their age. The name means “Old Bridge,” referring to an elegant 16th-century span erected by Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent. Long a famous trysting spot for courting couples, the bridge once spanned the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia—I say “once” because it was destroyed in 1993 by the Croatian militia, after also having been shelled by Serbs in 1991.
But the bridge lives on in a gray 3D recreation that surreally arches over the barroom—where no alcohol is served, though you can regale yourself with a selection of fruit nectars ($2). The rudimentary menu is limited to grilled meats, salads, and bureks—the round, flaky pies of the Balkans. Foremost among viands is pljeskavica ($9), an onion-laced hamburger that the menu rather imprudently (and anachronistically) boasts as being “as big and round as a phonograph record.” Really, it’s more of a hubcap on a small imported car. Nevertheless, the patty is smoky and ultra-flavorful, especially when smeared with the trio of sides: a red-pepper paste called ajvar (pronounced “eye-var”), a homemade clabber of milk called kimek, and chopped white onions. But the show is almost stolen by the bun. Called lepinja, it’s like a pocketless pita inflated with a bicycle pump.
Despite the excellence of the burger and other flame-grilled meats, Stari Most’s bureks sometimes taste reheated and a bit damp. You might just dash around the corner to Ukus (“Taste”), where the bureks are baked to order, or at least reheated in a pizza oven rather than a microwave. (When former Yugoslavians first arrived in Astoria, they often took over pizza parlors, partly because they could use the ovens to make bureks.) Ukus’s $4 wedge of cheese-and-spinach burek is thrillingly crisp, with feta adding a subversively sharp note under the bland crunchiness of the pastry. Also desirable is the rarely seen cabbage burek, where $4 gets you a pie coiled like a garden hose. It’s an affirmation that not all bland food is boring. For dipping pieces of burek, a coffee cup of homemade yogurt ($1) is compulsory.
The grilled meats at Ukus include much the same cavalcade as Stari Most’s. The cevapcici—little skinless sausages, nine to an order—arrive stuffed in an identical lepinja. But don’t try to eat them like a burger, or they’ll shoot out the sides of the bun like shrapnel, and you wouldn’t want to lose a single wonderful bite. Ukus also provides a handful of full-blown entrées ($9), including cabbage leaves stuffed with finely shredded beef, and the bean stew called grah, featuring the aforementioned beef jerky.
On our visits, we took to trooping between the two restaurants. While Ukus doesn’t usually have desserts on its menu, Stari Most offers a fine selection, including the chocolate-drenched crepes called palacinke ($4). Make sure you finish up with a brass pitcher of the excellent Bosnian coffee—and no, you’re not supposed
to eat the mud in the bottom of the cup.