Zdravo, friends! Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues! If you didn’t recognize my initial greeting, it was just one way to say “Hello” in Bosnian. This Balkan nation goes back to time eternal, but after millennia of shifting borders and political alliances have managed to achieve stability and a high standard of life for its citizens. The name of Bosnia and Herzegovina is disputed, but many scholars believe that Bosnia is derived from the Bosna river while Herzegovina is a bit more complicated. A Bosnian nobleman adopted the title Herceg (“duke” in Bosnian) and combined it with the ending “-ovina” meaning “land”. Once again, a rich guy stamping his name on a piece of land like Pennsylvania and America, for example. Anyway, moving on from monikers, today’s post involves Kiko’s Meat Market, a homey piece of the Balkan nation located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood which is home to numerous immigrants from the Balkans.
It was a cold night when Janice and I finally made our way into this mysterious restaurant right across the street from one of numerous magic shops that inhabit this part of town for some odd reason. I didn’t know what to expect from an establishment with the term “meat market” in the title. Was it going to bring me back to my life as a deli counter worker in the now defunct Chicago-based, all things Slavic emporium Bobak’s Sausage Company, or perhaps something more fitting in the Boystown neighborhood? It was neither. There is street and paid parking on the surrounding streets, and the staff were very friendly to us upon entering. We heard more Bosnian and Serbian conversations than English as we were escorted to our seats which only added to the ambiance of traveling to another corner of the world without even needing a passport. As for the actual decor, it wasn’t anything over the top or notable. It was a basic diner that reminded me of some of the Polish diners that used to be all over on the Southwest side around my grandparents house. Not only was it a restaurant, but it was connected to a Balkan grocer and deli where you could buy different types of meats and treats from the old country. Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for some sausage or bakery or waiting for the waitress to come to your table like I did. Before we got a chance to look over the menu, we ordered our drinks. I got a Jelen beer which is a Serbian pale lager. The name of the beer in Serbian means “deer” hence the majestic wildlife on the label. It was nothing of note. In fact, it reminded me of every beer from Southern Europe, i.e. thin and inoffensive. Not surprising when these brews come from wine cultures. On top of the liquid bread, we were provided the old fashioned sliced kind. It may not look like much, but it was clearly homemade with the warm, pliant middle and just crusty enough edges that were enhanced by the accompanying European butter that was smoother and not as salty as its American counterpart. These were just warning shots before the bomb that was dropped in the form of the entrees: the sampler platter (Mješano meso) and the cabbage rolls (sarma). The cabbage rolls looked similar to the gołąbki my Polish family makes for most, if not all, family get-togethers. It consisted of a soft and slightly sour exterior of translucent, pea green cabbage that was doused in a beef and tomato sauce. These little rolls were camping between two mini-mountains of mashed potatoes that were enhanced with a generous dollop of sour cream like fresh powder in the Alps. We quickly cut into the rolls and were met with a rice and beef blend that was kind of different from the pork, rice, and pea mixture found in my family’s Polish counterpart. It was everything I love about Eastern European cooking: warm, comforting, and hearty. The cool sour cream cut through the bit of grease that accompanied the meat. The mashed potatoes were anonymous in a plate full of character and bold flavors. After that first act, it was time to step up to the plate and take on the champ. The sampler platter was the Andre the Giant of our meal: just one giant hunk of meat (thankfully, better looking though).
Actually, to be specific it consisted of a variety of Bosnian meats including chevapi, sausages, chicken, veal kebobs, and veal liver all served within traditional a traditional Balkan pita bread with a side of fries, salad, and ‘kajmak’ cheese. We asked our waitress if it was going to be enough food before we ordered it, and once it was in front of us, we could see why she laughed at our naivete. I felt like I was King Arthur putting Excalibur back into its stone home, but instead of having my crown rescinded, we were both blessed with a bountiful meal. Naturally, the bread was warm and much more substantial than a Greek pita and baked to perfection. The kajmak cheese was like a Balkan version of brie that went very well on the warm bread. The chevapi weren’t new to us since we’ve tried other countries’ versions of these miniscule skinless sausages. They’re essentially char-grilled pieces of beef and pork that just go down way too easy. The sausages were all made in house, and they seemed to be pork based. I was more particular to their chicken that absorbed a little bit of each of the other meats’ flavors which isn’t surprising since every meat seems to taste like chicken. Long story short, if you’re a carnivore, this sampler platter is just for you. The veal kebobs were very tender, juicy, and bursting with flavor. We both tried a bit of the veal liver, but we weren’t fans of the unique, grainy texture that accompanies liver. Then again, we were also saving room for dessert like the smart people we are. Even though we felt like we were ready to burst, Janice jumped for the tiramisu while I went for the more exotic tufahija. Tiramisu isn’t Bosnian, rather Italian, and is a more recent invention around the 1960s. The origin of the name of the dessert is up for debate including the name of a Veneto baker’s apprentice’s maiden name, but a layer cake by any other name would taste as sweet and coffee-tastic. It was a welcome change from the heavier plates we chowed down on earlier. From the coffee soaked bottom layer to the heavenly light cream on top, it was a dessert fit for my classy bella donna. As for my tufahija, it is a relic of centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. This is clearly evident since the name is derived from the Arabic word “tuffàh” (تفاحة) meaning “apple” in English, but the dessert itself originates in Persia. It consisted of a cold, skinned apple soaked in sugar water and then stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream. It was so wildly different compared to everything I had that dinner, nay I’ve had in dessertdom, and I loved every minute of it. The apple was slightly moist and chilled but not soggy somehow. As I moved my way through the dessert, the core was filled with crunchy, basically raw walnuts that provided a much needed crunch and offset the sweet, but not overly so, apple. These elements by themselves were wonderful, and the whipped cream was good up to a point. I think it was a bit excessive with the wavy white sea this dessert was bobbing in. I would highly recommend this dessert though if you’re looking to break away from traditional end platters to your meal.
We left Kiko’s with very happy and stuffed bellies with another full meal of leftovers in our doggy bag, so you will definitely get your money’s worth at this eatery. If you’re a carnivore or looking for a new and unique restaurant that also serves one of Chicago’s many Balkan communities, you got to get to Kiko’s Meat Market!