LAST SUMMER I looked out the front window and noticed a new fellow across the street, shirtless and drinking the juice from a can of beets. He was emptying out a garage that had long been the rat's nest of a tweaking young couple and their pit bull, hosing off the interior walls and building tables out of scrap lumber and pipe fittings. "Welcome to the gypsy kitchen!" he called, smiling, as I walked over to introduce myself. He was proofing bread in a garbage bag.
He switched to Pabst as we talked, and the beer, mingled with his gums and teeth and beet juice, made him look like a luckless boxer after a brutal round. He had cooked and worked in Croatia, he explained, and was hoping to bring the cuisine of the Balkan region to Portland. He proudly gave me a slice of handmade burek—a meat-filled pastry not unlike a coiled snake—and I, a fan of the basics, happily accepted the proffered fork.
I took a bite. I chewed. Mystified, I chewed more. Nothing was happening. There was meat and bread in my mouth, and onion, but the expected top-note of acid and herbal adornment was just not there. All I could taste was meat, bread, and onion—it was simply the sum of its parts, no more, and I felt like an ass for not being impressed. He beamed at me, his mouth a puce and happy thing. It was exactly as it was made in the old country, he explained.
Over the next months, I would come to learn many things about this unpretentious and unalloyed cooking. John—that was his name—described a very poor land with a tradition of beautiful produce, where "something as simple as a boiled carrot or potato will reveal flavor and nutritional dimensions you just don't find in a carrot or potato here. It's almost as if their vegetables were wild, and had 'gaminess.'" The livestock were raised on these vegetables, and their meat took on its complexities as well.
Thus, with a plate of Two Brothers Café & Grill's fresh-baked meat burek before me last week, I had some idea of what to expect. This little six-year-old café on SE 39th (check out our review from way back in 2006: http://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/nkotb/Content?oid=73262), which I think most of us have driven by 100 times without seriously considering, has a menu filled with this elemental cuisine, heavy on sausage, simple fresh breads, grilled vegetables, and stews. Ajvar, a rich and vibrant relish made with roasted red pepper, garlic, eggplant, and chili pepper, gives a complex flourish to these straightforward foods, along with plentiful sour cream to represent the fresh, salted kajmak cheese of home. Select beers and wines of Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, and Montenegro are available, and are perpetually enjoyed by at least one table of Balkan expats chatting animatedly with the owners.
Start a meal here with a large shared salad of whole roasted red peppers and garlic, marinated in fresh, grassy extra virgin olive oil and dotted with generous squares of dry, salty feta ($5). Ask for the pillowy house-made pita—fluffy and chewy with the thickness of a catcher's mitt—to go along with it. Pasulj, a delicious traditional brown bean stew with an assortment of aromatics, is a rich and healthful starter of its own ($6.50), though their "curing" tomato soup ($3-5), I hate to say after all that, is kind of thin and unexciting.
The chevapi you see advertised in the window is a dish of juicy little grilled dolma-sized sausages, thick pita, ajvar, chopped onion, and sour cream—a steady and satisfying meal for one ($8-11). Sudzuka ($11.50), spicy beef and veal sausages, is a substantial plate presented the same way, with fries and salad. Goulash ($8-13.50), the Hungarian beef stew, was serviceable, but benefited greatly from a good stir of sour cream.
Pljeskavica ($11) is a massive, thin Serbian hamburger, maybe eight inches across, made with well-seasoned, finely ground beef, but at that price should probably include fries. The Balkan Sandwich ($8) is two of the excellent sudzuka sausages in half a pita with slaw, mayonnaise, cucumbers, and tomatoes—moist and massive, like a good gyro. Their gyros themselves ($6) are, by comparison, just the standard Kronos-type meat, and built on a generic pita. Lunchtime crêpes are tremendous, tender, and well filled, a surprising and unexpected hit.
The simplicity of this food, perhaps best exemplified by the grandmotherly burek, is a welcome mental change of gears in a landscape of complex sensory stimuli. Two Brothers provides hearty, defiantly unsexy, rustic home cooking in a friendly, casual environment—an interesting opportunity for a city where the diners are well disposed to rediscover ingredients for what they are, not how they can be fussed with.
Tues-Thurs 11 am-9 pm, Fri 11 am-10 pm, Sat noon-10 pm, Sun noon-8 pm. Children's menu, easy parking.