By Barbara Rolek
Marinko “Mike” Gvero and his mother, Jovanka Damjanovic
You’ll think you’re in Baba’s (grandmother’s) kitchen when you sit down to a meal at Balkan Restaurant in Merrillville, Ind. This no-frills place with white tablecloths is easy to miss, tucked away as it is on West 80th Place. So look sharp. You don’t want to pass this one by.
Owned by Mirko and Jovanka Damjanovic, and Radovan Trivunovic, the restaurant is managed by the Damjanovics’ son, Marinko “Mike” Gvero. If the food doesn’t charm you (and it should), Mike certainly will. He’s an affable host and makes you feel comfortable the moment you step inside.
Open since July 1, the restaurant features comfort food familiar to Serbians, Croatians, Yugoslavians, Romanians, Macedonians, Bulgarians, and other Eastern Europeans. But, actually, anyone who enjoys good food would like these offerings that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Everything is made from scratch and à la minute, which means “to order.” So, if you have to wait a little longer than at a fast-food restaurant for your meal, you’ll know why.
A recent visit to Jovanka’s spotless kitchen revealed just what fresh cooking means. Tomatoes and peppers are not pre-diced and the potatoes for the homemade french fries are peeled and cut only when a customer places an order.
Jovanka says she cooks at the restaurant the way she would for her family. That can only mean one thing — lovingly prepared authentic Eastern European food!
For step-by-step photo instructions to make ”Selsko Meso” (pork tenderloin with onions, mushrooms, green peppers and tomatoes), visit http://easteuropeanfood.about.com/od/recipestepbyste1/ss/selskomesostep.htm on my About.Com Web site.
Entrées are huge and reasonable. They come with homemade mashed potatoes (Jovanka makes them with half-and-half!) or homemade french fries, coleslaw, diced onions, soup, bread and “kajmak” (that delicious spread that is a cross between butter and cream cheese).
When I visited, the soup of the day was a golden “Pileca Corba” (chicken noodle) with chunks of chicken that had the flavor only achieved by long, slow cooking.
Here are just a few of Balkan’s other offerings: ”Sarska” (a 2-pound hamburger stuffed with mozzarella cheese), “Zaviok” (grilled pork tenderloin wrapped with bacon and stuffed with mozzarella cheese, ham, mushrooms, pickles and yogurt), ”Leskovacki Ustipak” (a ground beef patty with garlic, hot peppers, mozzarella cheese and ham), “Raznjici” (pork kebabs), “Manastirski Dvojnik” (pork tenderloin stuffed with mozzarella cheese), “Bela Vesalica” (grilled pork tenderloin).
And then there’s “Kremenadle” (twin pork steaks), “Gulas” (goulash made with beef tips), “Cevapi” (grilled sausages), “Pljeskavica” (a giant grilled meat patty), and “Schnitzels” (breaded veal steak). Hot peppers are optional with any of these dishes.
On top of all this, they offer omelets, “Shopska” (salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers and feta cheese), American burgers, chicken strips and shrimp, Turkish coffee and more.
Don’t miss dessert — “Palacinke” (crepes filled with bananas and chocolate and topped with more chocolate and whipped cream, or with jam or plain).
Among the amenities are beer and wine, live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays, and accommodation for private parties up to 120. And if you can’t fit all your ”Slava” guests in your house, here’s a place to hold it. Best of all, you won’t have to do all that cooking yourself!
Are you hungry yet? You’ve got to give Balkan Restaurant a try.
Balkan Restaurant, 44 W. 80th Place, Merrillville, IN 46410
219.736.7784 or 219.512.3974
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays and Tuesdays
Prices: $5.95 to $16.95