Is it a spanakopita? No. It’s a burek.
What is the difference? I’m sitting here trying to figure it out. Across Park Boulevard, there are two cafes, both smart, cool, new, and library-quiet, except for the piped music. Everyone in the modern building at Trust and at its neighbor Refill is sitting, slurping silently, heads-down, iPad-driven.
Over here at Milan Misic’s tiny place, it’s as noisy as a schoolyard at playtime. A group of guys are clustered around the tables outside, laughing, yakking about I don’t know what. Don’t know, because they are talking in Serbo-Croatian. Yes, some of them are smoking, tsk tsk, all of them are drinking coffee and/or Perrier water, but what hits me as I listen through the window is how much they’re reveling in each other’s company.
“We Serbians live by another clock,” says Milan, “We usually have to have two hours’ getting together in the morning, and then another two hours when we get off work in the evening. In the morning, it’s mostly guys. In the evening the girls turn up.”
Liveliest cafe on Park? No lap-topping here.
This is all serendipity for me. Hopped off the 215 at Park and University. Started walking south towards Balboa Park, looking for a nice strong coffee to kick-start my day. Also thought a snack’d be good.
Then I started hearing these sounds, men laughing, arguing, shouting each other down. Spotted some sidewalk umbrellas, tables, trees in pots (and no railings. Yay!)
I got closer. “Balboa Perk,” said the sign. So you know that wit’s alive in this joint.
3775 Park Boulevard, San Diego
I slipped in through the corner door to, wow, the kind of living room you’d read about in a Hercule Poirot mystery. Curved sofas, carved tables, shelves stuffed with old books, giant mirrors with gold frames, green walls, black and white tile floor, ancient wicker hampers, somebody singing “Breathe in the air tonight,” a little freezer loaded with Italian gelato, a snack shelf loaded with Toblerone chocolate bars, Turkish Delight, Nutella, and strangely named items such as Jaffa Cakes, Honey Hearts... plus a few in the Cyrillic alphabet.
“Those are from Serbia,” said Milan. “I am the only Serbian cafe in town. People come for a taste of home.”
“Do you do actual food?” I asked.
“Some,” he said, and picked up a sign showing a shallow pie with golden, flaky pastry. “Burek, with spinach and cheese,” it read.
“It’s a popular food in Serbia,” he said. “Breakfast time, people love it. I buy mine direct from Serbia, frozen, because the cheeses there are special, something like feta, a more aged cheese, stronger taste. Having the real thing means a lot to Serbs living here. Also, my customers come from Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia. They all love this dish. In Greece they call it spanakopita. Not the same, but similar. Burek is our fast-food breakfast.”
He said he cuts each circular burek into quarters. Charges $4 per quarter.
He also does panini. “We make it with Italian salami — $6 — or with Serbian pršuta (think prosciutto) ham ($7).”
So here I am, getting hungrier by the second. I go for the cheese and spinach burek. (I could have had plain cheese.) And I have to have a coffee. Milan points me to a funny-shaped blackboard drinks menu hanging on the wall.
“That’s the hood of my old BMW,” he says.
Turns out Milan does a Serbian kafa. “It’s Serbian coffee, quite like Turkish,” he says. “The bottom half is always the coffee grounds.” It costs $3.25. “But it has to be genuine. These guys will let me know if it’s not the real thing.”
So he microwaves my $4 quarter round of burek. You might call this my burekfast. (Go ahead and groan.)
Milan (standing) and his regulars
I sit down at one of the antique tables, haul out a couple of books from the shelves: Human Body, Stars and Planets, and A Reader in European Integration. Hmm. This should wake up the little gray cells, as Hercule Poirot would say.
The Serbian coffee? Oh, man. Strong, sweet, not bitter. Marvelously rich. Of course, the bottom half of the cup is all grounds. But combining with the burek’s the trick.
“You should come in the morning, maybe eight, nine,” says Milan. “Everybody does. My burek is fresh out of the oven, and the phyllo pastry is so delicate. For you, unfortunately, I had to reheat.”
He’s right. My burek is a little tough around the edges. Still enjoy it, though.
“People argue about what is a true burek,” he says, “and where it really comes from.”
Seems Bosnians say a true burek is filled only with meat. These cheese and spinach, and one with pumpkin that’s popular, don’t cut the Bosnian mustard. They say those should be called pita.
My one burek regret: turns out Serbs always like to have yogurt with their bureks (a bottle is $2 here). Something about its fresh, tart taste. “We have to have them together,” says Milan. “I didn’t offer it to you, because most Americans don’t like the combination.”
What he thinks Americans may like is a pljeskavica, which he may be offering soon. Think of it as a Balkan Burger. Mix of spiced pork, beef, and lamb. Milan says it’s a national dish of Serbia, eaten all over the Balkans. Only reason he hasn’t started it here yet is he’s pretty cramped for space, what with the coffee lounge part and the antique furniture he sells out of here. Pljeskavica comes with a milk cream, spices, ajvar (relish), and urnebes, a spicy cheese salad. And it is sometimes sandwiched in a flatbread. Basically, a spicy burger. Can’t wait.
The croissants here ($4) are huge, flaky, and look really great for dipping in this coffee. Except by the time I’m through with the burek, I only have space for one of their chocolate-dotted baklava ($3), which has a good crumble, and a slightly liquidy heart.
Whatever, a ton to come back to. But maybe most important, a place to love if yakking is a serious pastime for you, even if you don’t see any familiar faces.
- The Place: Balboa Perk European Coffeehouse, 3775 Park Boulevard, Uptown, 619-892-6038
- Hours: 8 am-5 pm daily
- Prices: Burek (spanakopita), $4; salami panini, $6; prshuta (Serbian ham) panini, $7; Serbian coffee, $3.25; açaí, $7-9; Turkish Delight, $2; Baklava, $2.75-$4
- Bus: 7
- Nearest Bus Stop: Park and Robinson