This is me, greeting Ismet Sahic beside his truck. It’s 8 p.m., and Quartyard, here at Park and Market, is Sunday-night mellow. A floodlit rack of people sits drinking and chatting at the bar of the converted shipping container. A few gals and guys are playing cornhole between the rows of picnic tables. Their strings of dogs sit leashed, desperate to chase the flying bean bags. And at a long picnic table, folks are intently into Jenga, that game where you pull wooden bricks out of a pile and try not to let it collapse.
Dobro vecé? It means “good evening” in Bosnian-Serbo-Croatian. I was in Bosnia once. And I’m guessing that’s what Ismet Sahic speaks, because he’s cooking away in this food truck labeled “Bosnian Grill.”
“Dobro vecé,” he says back. “Give me a moment.”
So I kinda let the slope roll me down to the bar, ask Blaine the bar guy what kind of stouts they have, and take him up on Camp Fire Stout. High Water Brewing, up Stockton way, $6.75. Biscuity, chocolatey, marshmallowy. Uh, a little sweet for me.
But as I sip, Ismet and his truck get me thinking Bosnia again.
Sigh. Sweet times. Before all the bad stuff hit the Balkans. Lots of partying, rough and gutsy home-grown wines, and of course the national plum brandy, slivovitz. Ayee! But what was most beautiful: you saw churches and mosques side-by-side. Bells and calls to prayer echoing out together. Bosnia was where Islam and Christianity met and...shook hands.
Uh-oh. See Ismet waving.
“What would you like?” he says when I get back to the truck. He points to a big list on the side.
“Greek customers say I have the best gyros,” he says.
He has five types of gyros. The sandwich ($9), the plate (with rice, pita bread, salad ($15), the salad with feta cheese, olives, tzatziki sauce ($10), or just gyros with rice ($9). Or chicken breast gyros ($9). Then we’re talking Philly cheese steak ($9) or a jumbo hot dog ($5). Also a “mix plate” for $15.
But I’m interested in the item right at the top. Cevapi. What the heck is that?
“In Sarajevo, where I come from, cevapi [he pronounces it chevapi] are like tacos are here. They are our street food.”
The name’s totally new to me, so even though it’s 12 bucks, I ask for that. “Beef sausage,” it says. “Served with Bosnian bread, onion, sour cream, garlic sauce.”
“Maybe ten minutes, okay? I have to cook it,” Ismet says. “I’ll call you.”
A quarter hour’s slow sipping and Ismet slides my food steaming through the serving hatch. Wow. It’s a kind of golden-baked pastry beehive. No, more like a giant quilted pin cushion. Or actually, more like a giant egg with baby dinosaurs all squabbling around inside, waiting to bust out. Like when you rip the top open, all these heads of sausage pop up.
“It’s a lepinja,” he says. “It’s like a flatbread but with yeast so it rises a little and you can put things inside. This has come all the way from my hometown, Sarajevo. We also call it somun.”
“Right, the bread. It comes frozen.”
“So how do you eat it?” I ask. Just noticed the knife and fork.
“In Sarajevo, you just use your fingers,” Ismet says. “Rip off a bit of the bread, then grasp some sausage and the onions.”
I see a carpet of chopped raw onions inside. There’s also a pot of red stuff and another of white stuff. “The red is ajvar. It’s paprika, eggplant, tomatoes, hot peppers.”
And the white stuff? “Unripened cheese,” says Ismet. He calls it kajmak. And, boy, tastes good, like clotted cream.
So, I spread that all over the sausages and lepinja and then just toss all the red ajvar over the sausages.
“Have it while it’s hot,” says Ismet.
I take it to the nearest table. Man, the sausages are spicy, and that ajvar is lush and more eggplant-flavorful than spicy-hot. Goes with my second beer, a Monkey Paw brown ale.
“The sausage meat?” I ask.
“If we could bring in young calves and lamb from Bosnia, we would,” says Ismet. “The meat’s flavor would be much stronger. Bosnians can tell the difference.”
The bread certainly has plenty of umami flavor on its own, and with the quilting on top you can rip neat diamonds off, just enough to wrap a sausage.
What gave Ismet the idea to start a Bosnian Grill truck? You might say history.
“I got out from Sarajevo two months before the siege and the massacres began,” he says.
Bosnian Muslims were the victims. Ismet is Muslim. “First I was in Germany, then when they didn’t want us anymore, I came here. It was easier in 2000. I became a builder, a cabinet-maker. But when the recession hit in 2008, I was laid off. Everybody was. The business transferred to Mexico. I knew nobody would hire me at my age, so I started this. It is good, but the work is hard. I’m not a young man. You just have to keep going.”
A shout goes out. Somebody has just collapsed the Jenga pile. That somebody’s gonna have to pay for one last round. Me, I feel like settling down with Ismet and chewing the fat, helped, ideally, by a bottle of plum brandy. slivovitz. Heh-heh.
But no slivovitz. It’s almost 9:30. He has to clean up, fix an oil leak on his truck, and restock for tomorrow before his day’s done.
“Laku noc,” he says.
I guess I look puzzled.
Dang it. Shoulda at least remembered that.
789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
(No longer in business.)
The Places: Bosnian Grill food truck, 619-718-0267; regular locations include Quartyard; Otay Ranch Farmers’ Market (Tuesdays 4–8 p.m.); Ocean Beach Farmers’ Market (Wednesdays 4–8 p.m.); Gaslamp Farmers’ Market (Sundays 9 a.m.–1 p.m.); Allied Gardens Shopping Center Farmers’ Market (Fridays 4–8 p.m.)
Hours: Check individual hours and locations at Bosnian Grill Facebook page
Prices: Cevapi (beef sausage with Bosnian bread, onion, sour cream, garlic sauce), $8 (small), $12 (large); gyro sandwich, $9; gyro plate (with rice, pita bread, salad), $15; gyro salad (feta cheese, olives, tzatziki sauce), $10; gyro with rice, $9; chicken breast gyro, $9; Philly cheese steak, $9; jumbo hot dog, $5; mixed plate, $15