How St. Louis Became the Essential Bosnian Food Capital of the U.S.
“What is that?” a local office worker asks, craning his head, as a woman carries a canoe-shaped pide stuffed with ground beef and cheese, dotted with red pepper-infused ajvar and creamy feta kajmak, sprinkled with herbs. The dish, inspired by the Turkish fare that turned up in Bosnia during the period of Ottoman rule in the 16th and 17th centuries, is Insta-gold, regularly showing up on guests' social media feeds. (The photogenic plate was also hailed one of the “Best Bites of the Year” by Food & Wine restaurant editor Jordana Rothman.)
That stuffed Turkish pide bread, and the rest of Bosnian-inspired fare served on the roaming food truck (which is about to open a brick-and-mortar), are part of a glorious moment in St. Louis’ growing food scene.
As the city has evolved into an ambitious restaurant destination marked with James Beard Award-winning chefs and modernist tasting menus, the Gateway City’s long-established Bosnian community is rising with the culinary tide. Locals and tourists have become increasingly fascinated by the city’s world-class Bosnian dining scene, and with good reason.
Like many of those Bosnians who arrived in Missouri after fleeing their war-torn homeland in the 1990s, Edo Nalic arrived as a refugee. He and his wife, chef Loryn Nalic, are the scholarly minds behind Balkan Treat Box, which has since become a St. Louis favorite.
“They definitely made the biggest splash,” says James Beard Award-winner Gerard Craft, who recently opened the South American-inspired Cinder House at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis.
Loryn’s former catering manager position at Pappy’s Smokehouse, the most famous barbecue spot in town, had already made her a pillar in the city’s food community. Craft adds, “If there was going to be anybody that was going to bring Bosnian food mainstream it was going to be Loryn.”
While other well-established restaurants in town pull influences from different regions and periods in Bosnia’s history, Balkan Treat Box highlights the uniquely Ottoman impact on the cuisine.
Cevapi, uncased beef sausages similar to kofte, are a prime example. Found mostly in restaurants in Bosnia, Edo considered the dish a treat growing up. On the truck, Loryn makes the sausages in the longer, denser Sarajevo style, stuffed into a wood-fired pita known as somun with raw onion and kajmak, kind of like the Eastern European version of clotted cream.
Doner is made from thin strips of chicken piled high on a vertical spit, charcoal grilled and sliced into Balkan Treat Box’s signature flatbread, accented with onion, cheese, cabbage, tomato, and lettuce. Though doner is found all throughout the Balkans (often with a mellow spice mix of garlic, salt, pepper, and paprika), Loryn seasons hers with Turkish flair using Urfa Biber, cumin, and Aleppo pepper. “You won’t see a lot of that in Eastern Europe,” she says.
That well-curated menu took years of research and trial-and-error befitting a romantic comedy.
When the couple began dating, Edo took Loryn to Bosnian spots such as Taft Street Bar & Grill and Zlatno Zito Bakery & Deli in Bevo Mill, the community’s main hub in St. Louis. He’d talk about the dishes his mom would make at home and how they differed from the local restaurants.
Loryn, who started cooking as a preteen, tried to remake the dishes Edo described, scanning Youtube videos in other languages, closely watching techniques and attempting to translate Bosnian websites.
It didn’t go well.
When Edo told Loryn about pumpkin pita, a flaky Bosnian pastry referred to as burek in much of Eastern Europe, often filled with meat or greens, she decided to give it a whirl. She assumed, given their shared love of desserts, it would be a hybrid of spanakopita and American pumpkin pie. “He was like, ‘Why is this sweet?’” Loryn says, then laughs. “It didn’t even cross my mind that is could be something savory: I was failing miserably.”
Soon, Loryn began spending time learning to make classic dishes with Edo’s aunt, who lived nearby. She found herself hanging out with older Bosnian ladies to learn how to make the food that had been passed down from mother to daughter across generations. Loryn eventually traveled to the Balkans to study with Edo’s family and other cooks for a few months while he stayed home caring for her kids.
For many of the newly arrived immigrants in St. Louis, that culinary rite of passage had started to wane. Families that had fled Bosnia as thousands of their Muslim countrymen were slaughtered by the Bosnian Serb Army were torn apart. Many found themselves in a foreign, fast-moving world without any deep connections to the traditions of home, trying to assimilate to life in the Midwest.
Thrilled to find a young person excited about their culture, Loryn’s teachers welcomed her, just as they had been welcomed into the already existing Bosnian community by folks like the Grbic family.
While Balkan Treat Box has helped extend St. Louis’ Bosnian scene beyond the borders of the Bevo Mill neighborhood, Grbic Restaurant has long been considered the North Star of the community.
Years before the Grbics decided to open their restaurant, the family regularly greeted refugees with signs offering support. As the waves of Bosnians resettled into the city, they established themselves as community organizers, helping newly arrived immigrants find places to stay, jobs, obtain drivers licenses, and adjust to life in Missouri.
The Grbic’s also helped the Nalics establish Balkan Treat Box. The whole family offered encouragement from the start, giving Loryn access to their sausage maker to grind her cevapi. “Senada [Grbic] was laughing at me,” says Loryn. “In the time it took me to pump out ten pounds, I would pump out 100 pounds on their machine.”
When Grbic Restaurant opened in 2002, the family already had a built-in customer base due to their early guidance. Sulejman Grbic immigrated to St. Louis in 1972, settling in alongside the already robust populations of Greeks, Macedonians, Croatians, and Russians.
A butcher by trade, like his father and grandfather, Sulejman always wanted to open a restaurant. His wife, Ermina, is a trained chef, like her mother and grandmother, though she wasn’t so sure about the idea. But on February 14, 1998, Sulejman packed Ermina and their three kids in the car to show them his gift. He had bought a restaurant. “I remember being really little looking at my mom’s face: it was like, this is the worst Valentine’s Day ever,” says Senada Grbic.
There were a few restaurants representing the country’s cuisine when they opened their doors, but for the past seventeen years, Grbic has been the special occasion destination for the expat community. “We have about 70,000 Bosnians here,” says Senada. “When someone asks, ‘What’s Bosnian food like?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, let me take you to Grbic.’”
The menu at the white tablecloth restaurant focuses on the Austrian influences that are common in the Northwestern region of the country, where Sulejman and Ermina were raised.
You’ll find grilled dishes like homestyle chicken, shish kabob, and plejeskavica, a spiced veal patty with feta cheese.
Sulejman still butchers the beef and veal, sourced from his brother’s processing company, for the cevapi. The same recipe that was on the menu at Ermina’s father’s restaurant in the 1960s, the sausages are seasoned with a mix of dehydrated root vegetables, nutmeg, turmeric, and sweet Hungarian paprika. It’s served with lepinja, a bread similar to the one found at Balkan Treat Box, but both the bread and meat are steamed with beef stock and grilled until crispy.
Schnitzels, adopted when the Austro-Hungarian empire ruled the country, are made of chicken, veal, or filet migon and are pounded down exactly 75 times with a mallet until paper thin, lightly dusted with flour, and pan-seared.
Cabbage rolls are prepared in the Bosnian style: fermented cabbage is stuffed with ground veal, beef, and rice, and topped with a sweet paprika sauce instead of the tomato sauce found in other parts of Eastern Europe.
While the recipes at Grbic have been passed down through generations, the food speaks to St. Louis’ larger immigrant community. “It brings people to tears,” says Senada. “We have Polish or Russian people who say, ‘My grandma made cabbage rolls like this.’”
The family expanded its footprint of community gathering spots with Balkan-influenced gastro bar Lemmons by Grbic. Diverse clientele watch soccer games on TV while noshing on Balkan-inspired beef and beef bacon burgers and ustipci, Bosnian-style beignets, with a trio of dipping sauces. Opened in mid-2016, their latest place, considered one of the hottest new openings in town, joins a growing number of Balkan specialists in the city including a recently opened Bosnian pita specialist, J’s Pitaria, down the street.
Although these food businesses were once and still are primarily found in Bevo Mill, more recently, they’ve spread beyond the immigrant neighborhood and have tapped deeper into the popular dining scene, further entrenching Bosnian cuisine into the cultural fabric of St. Louis.
Many involved are thrilled with the growth and welcome the expansion. “We see this as a good thing for all of us together,” says Senada. “It’s all about diversity and sharing your culture with others.”