Bosnia's national food is a negotiated peace. Cevapi (cheh-VOPP-ee) is a comfort food for a long day's drinking and watching soccer, made with ingredients from all the cultures that colonized Sarajevo and the surrounds—Romans, Austro-Hungarians, Turks and Slavs. The ground beef-and-lamb sausage dish is something between hamburger and kebab, a kofta without binder or a sausage without casing. It's a spiced Jimmy Dean's of the Balkans that's good for breakfast, lunch, dinner or all of the above.
The lepinja flatbread is somehow both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern at once, with yeast that rises three times during baking—a bit like a buttery naan that, when cooked hot enough, splits into airy pita. Cevapi is served with raw onions; a garlicky, bell pepper-and-eggplant Serbian relish called ajvar (Turkish for "caviar," in a bit of a historical joke); and a fluffy cream called kajmak made from sheep's or goat's milk.
We found four spots serving the dish in the Portland area—ranked below.
1. Two Brothers
829 SE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., 232-3424
Two Brothers' exterior is oddly forbidding, on a busy intersection across from a gas station and a Walgreens. Despite its unpromising appearance, Two Brothers makes an almost obscenely thick, airy lepinja so puffed up it almost can't be called flatbread anymore.
And into this biscuity shell, whose interior must be carved out with fingers, one may stuff either five ($8) or 10 ($11) 2-inch, fresh sausages thick with the flavor of lamb and garlic, plus a sweet ajvar with earthy undertones. The meat is spiced with salt, pepper and vegeta, a spice mix from the old country.
Two Brothers serves sour cream rather than clotted kajmak, but otherwise in its fundamentals this is the best cevapi in Portland: a hearty, sweet, spicy, creamy mess in nearly ethereal bread.
2. 4-4-2 Soccer Bar
1739 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-3693, 442soccerbar.com
Muhamed Mujcic-Mufko's Taste of Europe grocery and deli served its Hawthorne Boulevard neighborhood with fresh-made lepinja and cevapi for years before being reborn as a soccer bar in 2009. And time was, I would have preferred that shop's bread even to the version at Two Brothers.
But the lepinja at 4-4-2 seems to have fallen to earth and is now a bit denser, less seared on the outside, less prone to splitting into satisfying layers. (They say they make it the same.) It comes sliced in the middle, like focaccia, served as ground for a cevapi sandwich. It's still very tasty, however, as is the Sis-Cevap ($9 small, $15.75 large), a spicy version of cevapi featuring two to four golf-ball-sized beef-and-lamb sausages with just a bit of hot pepper added to keep it interesting. 4-4-2's kajmak is airy and delicate, and its ajvar is more richly flavorful than anyone's in town. But, next to the much less-expensive version at Two Brothers, it's not quite the winner it once seemed.
3. Tasty N Sons
3808 N Williams Ave., 621-1400, tastyntasty.com
A strange little lamb, this one. It's new to Tasty N Sons' menu and still seemingly under experimentation—even in the spelling of its ingredients.
The trio of sausages in Tasty's cevapi ($17) are grilled less well-done than the ones at the Bosnian shops, and are significantly larger, with a steakier texture and more pop on the exterior. They're excellent sausages, but don't taste quite like cevapi. The ajvar, meanwhile, is stewy and sweet, while the kajmak is a little piece of technical brilliance, the best-executed foam of any of them. The dish is finished with the sharp kick of cayenne.
There's one problem with the dish, however. There seems to be no way to eat it. Its base is a broad, floppy slice of grill-seared flatbread; the onions are cut in unmanageable thin strands rather than chopped, and the sausages are thick as a lady's wrist. It's like a burger whose bun is too tepid to contain it—a dish at sloppy war with itself even as one cuts it with knife and fork.
4. Bosnia Restaurant
2902 NE Burton Road, Vancouver, 360-882-3440, bosniarestaurant.com
Next door to the Fenceman fencing supply, across from a string of homes delivered by trailer, with a full parking lot and a big outdoor clock carved into the shape of Elvis' guitar, Vancouver's Bosnia Restaurant looks promising—like a rib joint by the side of the road in the South. The radio blares Serbo-Croatian talk and the TV is switched to a Euro channel I didn't know existed.
But within, the restaurant is eerily calm. Where are the owners of all those trucks? "New management," proclaims the menu—rarely a good sign. The beef-only cevapi ($10 for a large) lacks the warm spicing and hearty meatiness of Two Brothers', sour cream is used instead of kajmak, and the lepinja is airless. The ajvar is too sweetly mild to counteract the sauce's sour notes.
And yet, though it is
the humblest of the local Bosnian restaurants, I leave the meal full
and in reckless good spirits. Cevapi, like a hamburger, is almost always
good—and this one was no exception. Because cevapi always feels like
home, even if home is Portland. Dobrodošao!
- Best cevap meat: Two Brothers.
- Best lepinja bread: Two Brothers.
- Best ajvar sauce: 4-4-2.
- Best cream: Tasty N Sons.