Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fire Walk With Me - The Adana Burger at Balkan Grill

Let's consider the hamburger, shall we?  The average American consumes over 230 pounds of the stuff a year.  Be it the evil, ammonia-drenched, feces-covered 99 cent shit served out of the typical drive-thru window, or the truly good stuff from Wagyu stock, bathed in beer its whole life and routinely serviced by a Geisha’s right hand, then sold, later, in trendy burger joints for upwards of $25 a pop, gastronomy in America, or whatever it is we call the daily business of cooking and eating, would, for most, be unthinkable, a strange and alien culinary landscape, a place truly un-American.  So what happens when our national dish goes abroad?  What becomes of the burger in, say, Europe?  Does it travel the continent like some well-meaning but dimwitted Jamesian waif, the victim of incessant ridicule, the object of depthless contempt, a symbol of all that is wrong with America?  Or is it something else?  Does the hamburger go abroad like a culinary assassin and rogue agent of the American empire, secretly warring upon centuries of European culinary tradition, and loosed upon the continent like some gonzo-gastro Colonel Kurtz armed with trans-fats, intent on making everyone fat, dumb, and happy?

I once lived in Europe.  I lived there just long enough to discover that everywhere (and I mean everywhere) I went, there would be hundreds of white-shoed, khaki-pants-and-fanny-pack wearing Americans lined up twenty-deep beneath the Golden Arches of, say, Paris, Amsterdam, or Oxford, clamoring for a taste of Omaha, shouldering their way forward for a whiff of old Debuque.  To this day I can’t decide if my fellow travelers sought Big Macs as a panacea for being homesick, or if their ruin as eaters was already complete.  Were they intimidated by the culinary unknown, or had Ronald already had his way with them?  Were they the psychologically damaged suckers who identified with their abusers as described in psychology’s proto-Freudian object relations theory?  Or was it more simple than that?  Was it just that these Americans were the typical monoglots who go abroad too frightened to order off menus printed the local language?  Were they, as eaters, forever lost?

Seeing a young American wolf down Royale Deluxe (that’s a Royale with Cheese for all you Pulp Fiction fans out there) on the Champs-Elysees broke my heart.  That was it for me and the hamburger for a while.  We were done.  Officially broken up.  Friends no more.  I didn’t eat ground meat in pressed or patty form the rest of my time in Europe.  And that’s too bad.  Because there is a long and still-vital tradition of European hamburger making (and eating) in the Old World.  And no, I’m not talking about the tradition of Hamburg Steak from the 17th Century (the Germans are on their own here).  I’m talking about the amazingly varied and truly delicious tradition of meat in patty form that is the cornerstone of streetfood in Balkan cuisine.

I now know about Balkan burgers only because a sudden culinary whim brought me into Alexandria’s delightful Balkan Grill to have me staring at an illustrated menu featuring not one, but two burgers deeply rooted in the Balkan streetfood tradition.  Only these pucks of delicious protein are not called hamburgers in Bosnian.  They’re called pljeskavica and are traditionally made of mixed ground meats, then grilled or fried, and served between what Americans would call a bun, but which Serbs call lipinja, and more resembles pita bread in gluten content than, say, does that Sunbeam bun you grew up with.  The pljeskavica is traditionally served with raw onions, peppers, tomatoes, and something magical called kaymak, and which, to Americans, will resemble sour cream on first glance, but which resembles, when tasted, crème fraiche or clotted cream.

This first pljeskavica was billed on the menu as the Bosnian Burger.  Below the Bosnian Burger was pictured something called the Adana Burger, beside which was handwritten the word HOT in ball-point pen.  I knew that Adana was a city southern Turkey not particularly prominent on the Southeastern European culinary map, but the promise of a spicy burger (even hot) intrigued me so much that I ordered it and a second dish called borek (fillo pastry stuffed with cheese) just in case the burger should somehow disappoint.  The proprietor took my order with Old World formality and retreated to the kitchen, leaving me alone to wait.

Balkan Grill is a neighborhood joint in my very own neighborhood of Alexandria south, as it just so happens.  Alexandria’s “hood,” if you will.  Balkan Grill is located in a strip mall that I’ve only patronized when my thirst for a late-night beer outweighs the likelihood that I’ll have to fistfight some hard-case at the local 7-11 beercase (more on that later).  The restaurant itself is tiny, designed for take-away, and seats six on a good day.  But it’s bright and clean and really everything you’d ever want in a local eatery.  There was a reach-in fridge full of soft drinks set next to a nearly sold-out pastry case of homemade-looking Bosnian/Turkish pastry.  Balkan Grill is conjoined to the equally surprising Euro Foods market, which offers all the Occidental canned, bottled, and wrapped exotics you’d hope to find in a European sundry.  I might have walked past Balkan Grill everyday in my six years here in the hood, but others far wiser than I have clearly not made the same mistake.  In my brief time at Balkan Grill, there was a steady stream of Bosnian-speaking and Russian-speaking luncheoneers, all of them women, all of them in search of an American husband were the tightness of their jeans any harbinger of their intent.  That Balkan Grill was on the radar of European expatriates jonesing for the taste of home seemed a very good sign indeed.

And one look at my food as it came out and I knew why Balkan Grill was a favorite among the Southeastern European crowd.  Before me were two huge plates of food.  One with a monster borek on it.  The other with the biggest hamburger I have ever seen.  The Adana burger was huge.  Colossal.  As big around as the top of my head.  It was presented as promised:  a meat patty of epic proportions laid between two slices of lipinja and garnished on the side with raw onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and a large dollop of kaymak.  I looked at the Adana burger, then at the two pretty tight-jeaned Bosnian nationals waiting for their food.  They winked at me and smiled and nodded me on like some fool about to plunge over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel, so I picked up my mammoth burger and took a bite.

Before I describe the Adana, a confession:  when it comes to hot food, I’m that guy.  I’m the guy who carries a bottle of Tabasco in his professional bag of tricks to enliven the staff meal I receive at the end of every event I supervise.  I drown my shift meal in hot sauce both to enliven my food and send my chefs into fits of apoplectic rage.  So I know my heat.  I’ve got the Scoville Scale tattooed on my culinary soul.

The heat I encountered in the Adana burger was, in a word, incendiary for a puck-shaped piece of ground protein.  It lit a fire in my mouth.  It called tears into my eyes.  It made me run for that cooling dollop of kaymak the way a frightened child runs for his mother.  The kaymak worked like magic.  Out went the flames.  And with the fire in my mouth extinguished, I was better able to detect spices in the meat which were unfamiliar but which hinted at the seasoning found in American breakfast sausage.  So I took another bite.  And another.  And another.  And as any heat-junkie well knows, food this hot only compels the eater to consume more and more.  It’s the white-knuckled rush of eating hot food.  That fabled endorphin high.  I ate and ate until my belly was distended, until I was wet as a long-distance runner in July, until the mighty Adana burger was no more than a memory on my plate.  The two Bosnian girls looked at me, rolled their eyes, and laughed.  Only a Bosnian fool would have me as a husband.  Ha ha ha.

Twelve years in the world of haute cuisine has taught me to believe that I know a helluva lot about food.  One late-winter’s visit to the truly excellent Balkan Grill has taught me that I know virtually nothing.  It has taught me there are untold numbers of age-old culinary traditions out there in the great wide world just waiting to be encountered by culinary enthusiasts like me.  As luck would have it, I always travel with my appetite; I’m always hungry for more.  Consider the hamburger.

Your link to Balkan Grill: Balkan Grill

And yeah, the borek was delicious.  Meet me there and I'll bring the beer.  Promise.



 

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