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Smile and say 'cheese burek'

In Rancho Park, the genial Aroma Cafe serves flavorful Balkan specialties you won't find anywhere else.

August 11, 2004|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

Bosnian food? Bosnia has been in the news for years, but its cuisine is something most of us have never known.

The closest we came was in the 1980s, when there were a fair number of Yugoslav restaurants around town and one of them announced it was going to add a Bosnian room. At the time I assumed it would serve the same dishes as the rest of the house (shish kebabs, stuffed vegetables, strudel-like pastries), only in a room with a more Turkish decor, since most Bosnians are Muslims. Nothing came of the restaurant's plan, though.

Now we actually have a Bosnian restaurant in Rancho Park, and I confess I'm surprised. Sure, the cuisine occupies the same general territory as Serbian or Croatian food, with links to the Middle East, Hungary and Italy, but it decidedly goes its own way. Giant kebab burgers! Sauerkraut dolmas! Prosciutto and sour cream sandwiches!

By calling itself Aroma Cafe, this genial place is not exactly underlining its Bosnian affinities, but if it prefers a name that emphasizes flavor, fair enough. Aroma Cafe has a hard-working kitchen that does turn out very flavorful food, starting with wonderful home-baked bread, crusty but with a soft crumb. It's rather like the well-known Italian ciabatta, complete with the characteristic dusting of flour, except that it comes in round 9-inch loaves instead of the slipper-like ciabatta shape.

There's always a soup, because Bosnians say you should start a meal with something you eat with a spoon. The best I've had here was a tangy fresh tomato soup with some vermicelli in it, along with -- here's the Bosnian touch -- tart grains of kisela tarhana, bulgur wheat soaked in yogurt. It comes with a spoonful of sour cream (like most Bosnian foods, it seems), making it something like a tomato borscht.

If you've been to a Yugoslav restaurant, you've doubtless had cevapcici, skewers of ground meat like grilled skinless sausages. The cevapi at Aroma Cafe deserve their different name, because they are something else again. Picture a loaf of that fresh ciabatta-like bread split open and filled with chunks of grilled meat ... along with sour cream and chopped onions. Even cut into four pieces, it looks like a gigantic Balkan hamburger. You can pick up a wedge and go at it like a burger, but Bosnians eat this dish more decorously, using a fork to pick up the meat and tearing off chunks of the bread to accompany it.

Aroma Cafe's stuffed vegetables offer surprises too. You can get bell peppers or dense, pale green squash with the usual filling of rice and beef, or you can get stuffed onions -- individual onion layers, separated and rolled up around the same filling. Yes, there are stuffed grape leaves (served hot with a little sour cream), but sometimes the place also has sour-cabbage sarma (you have to ask). Made from whole leaves of sauerkraut, they're substantially more interesting than any cabbage rolls. Particularly with that spoonful of sour cream on the plate, which gives a faintly Hungarian edge to the whole thing.

Pita is not what you might think. In Bosnia, it's a savory strudel filled with beef, cheese or a vegetable (spinach, squash or mashed potatoes) and rolled into a roughly spiral shape before baking. The spinach model is like eating a Greek spanakopita in spiral form, though the pastry is somewhat sturdier and crunchier than phyllo.

Beverages include canned fruit juices and kefir, a yogurt drink. No alcohol is served, but no one minds if a patron brings in a bottle or two of beer.

Aroma Cafe is a bit of a deli -- there are a few shelves of imported Balkan foods and a cold case of cheeses and cured meats. You can get a selection of the cold cuts as a meze plate. It consists of smoky, thin-sliced prsut (per-SHOOT; yes, our old friend prosciutto, only made from beef), a smoked salami-like sausage called sudjuk, a salty feta and Travnicki sir, a slightly tart Bosnian sheep's milk cheese.

But if you want to amaze yourself, get the chewy sandwich of prsut with kajmak: prosciutto with sour cream and thin slices of cucumber. It's great, of course -- smoky, meaty and oddly light.

Prosciutto with sour cream. Maybe this is the deli sandwich of the future.


Aroma Cafe

Location: 2530 Overland Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 836-2919

Price: Soup, salads and sandwiches, $2.50 to $4.50; main dishes, $3.50 to $12.50; desserts, $2 to $3.50.

Best dishes: Tomato soup, meze plate, sour cabbage sarma, lamb cevapi, prosciutto and kajmak sandwich

Details: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays through Tuesdays. Closed Wednesdays. No alcohol. Lot and street parking. MasterCard and Visa

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