Balkan Treat Box debuts a 1,825-square-foot space in Webster Groves, a suburb outside of St. Louis, with wood-fired flatbreads, grilled beef sausages, and a Bosnian-inspired cheeseburger.
Inside Taft Street, a dark and smoky restaurant in St. Louis, chef Loryn Nalic remembers the moment she laid eyes on Edo Nalic, a Bosnian refugee who, a few years prior, had arrived in Missouri after fleeing his war-torn country.
“I walked inside this tiny restaurant, the blinds were closed, and there were guys smoking cigarettes,” Loryn says, who was working as a food sales representative. “It definitely didn’t feel like St. Louis. Once I opened the door, the sunlight hit Edo. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The second I walked outside, I looked at my boss and said ‘Did you see that guy? Wow.’”
Less than a year after their initial meeting, Edo received a deportation notice and Loryn jumped into action. “We had struck up such a close friendship,” she says. “It was either we get married or he’d be forced to leave. I couldn’t let him go, so we got married but we didn’t tell anyone at first. We ended up falling in love, and the rest is history.”
More than a decade later, the Nalics are still very much in love –– both with each other and the restaurant they’ve waited years to open, Balkan Treat Box. The fast-casual spot, which will fittingly debut a day before Valentine’s Day in Webster Groves, a suburb outside of St. Louis, is based on their wildly-successful food truck, which rolled out in early 2017. At the permanent location, the husband-and-wife duo will serve Bosnian fare inspired by Edo’s childhood, including wood-fired flatbreads, grilled beef sausages, and a riff on a cheeseburger.
“Ever since we met, I’d tell Loryn how much I missed the food from home,” Edo says. “That’s when she started teaching herself how to make different recipes. It’s not easy though. This food can be very complicated to make, but she nailed it. I knew from the beginning how much she wanted to open her own place, so it all made sense.”
Outfitted with a large metal map of the Balkans, the restaurant features a copper-plated wood burning hearth, perfect for making somun (similar to pita bread), and a charcoal grill and a gas-heated spit, where Loryn creates her version of doner, in which she cooks meat on the vertical split, grills until crisp, and seasons with dried Turkish chili pepper, cumin, and Aleppo pepper.
“The menu is a combination of foods Edo felt he was missing in the U.S. and foods I discovered through my travels,” Loryn says. “Executing all of that on a truck wasn’t easy. Having a larger space will allow us to expand the menu, but right now we’re sticking with the classics.”
Before launching Balkan Treat Box, Loryn spent years in the kitchen learning from Edo’s aunt, who also lives in St. Louis. She even left the country for the first time in 2013 to travel to Bosnia, where she met Edo’s family for the first time and studied Balkan food from local bakers and chefs.
“I needed to go over there and get my hands dirty,” Loryn says. “I never traveled outside of the country, and there I was going alone while Edo stayed back to care for my children. It was wild, but exactly what I needed to understand the food.”
When the restaurant’s colorful 1,825-square-foot space opens Wednesday, customers will get the best of the Nalics’ food truck along with some new additions. Almost every item includes a doughy piece of somun, from Cevapi, a grilled sausage dish with kajmak (a creamy white cheese); to Doner, made with spit-roasted beef, chicken, or tofu and topped with onion, cheese, cabbage, and tomato. Then there’s Pide, a boat-shaped wood-fired flatbread with beef, chicken, or eggplant, and kajmak, ajvar (a spicy, pepper-based spread), and fefferoni.
“We have so much more in store,” Loryn says. “We’re trying to create items that demonstrate what Balkan food means to us and offer something that reminds people of home. Most people don’t know this, but there are more than 70,000 Bosnians in St. Louis, making it the largest Bosnian population in the United States and outside of Europe. There are a lot of people to feed.”
Keep an eye out for newer items, such as Lahmacun, a Turkish-style flatbread, served flat or rolled, and layered with spicy minced beef or tofu, with parsley, lemon, and sumac; the Plieskavica, a “Balkan burger” stuffed with cheese and kajmak inside somun; and the Balik Ekmek, which is comparable to a grilled fish sandwich on somun.
“We would love to take this concept to other locations,” she says, “outside of St. Louis and Missouri, too. Maybe a small stall inside a food hall? We’ll see, but either way, we’re just getting started.”
Balkan Treat Box. 8103 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves. 314-733-5700.