A bite-sized piece of sirnica (cheese pie) topped with ajvar & kajmak
Ukus (42-08 30th Ave., Astoria)
Open daily from 10AM to 11PM (718) 267-8587
The dining room is tiny, clean, and simple, but nearly always full, the glass door perpetually swinging open with several more eager locals waiting at the counter for take-home orders. No one so much as even glances at the menus, stacked tidily by the cash register as if unopened for months. The room of pistachio green walls and exposed brick seats little more than twenty people, predominantly southeastern European, who quietly gaze at soccer on the two flat screen televisions while tearing pieces of freshly steamed bread pockets to pinch up house made sausages with creamy cow's milk cheese curds and garlic-red pepper-eggplant spread. Older gentlemen sip on rich, aromatic Turkish coffee and peck at syrupy soaked pastries, while children smear fingerprints on the glass counter that showcases an array of sausages and desserts. The scent of baking phyllo harmonizes with grilled sirloin and minced onions. The ingredients are as simple as the decor, but there is a real art form at work here, and these cooks are serious about what they do.
Considering that Greece is located on the Balkan Peninsula (alongside Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia), it should come as little surprise that Astoria has emerged as a pocket of some of the city's most popular Balkan restaurants. Open since 2006 and run by three brothers from the former Yugoslavia, along with their mother, sister, and aunt, Ukus is known for having some of the most gargantuan and tastiest pies, and most delicately seasoned sausages. Their little menu reads like an abridged Who's Who of the most popular dishes served in the Yugoslavian tradition, with three soups, four salads, five pies, and thirteen grilled and main dishes (the name, ukus, translates to "taste").
A poster on the wall advertises that a Ukus Cevap Truck will soon be serving some of their grilled specialties in Manhattan. Our server confirms that the finishing touches are being added to the truck, which should make its debut at a yet-to-be-determined Manhattan location within the next week or so. As details become more clear, they will be shared on the Cevap Truck website, which presently only reveals the mobile menu, featuring various Balkan meats and sausages, alongside a few traditional salads and sweet treats. With the food truck craze currently sweeping Manhattan, I have a strong premonition that Ukus will soon be bursting at the seams with customers from beyond Astoria who want to indulge in the full menu, especially the pastry pies, soups, and stews. So for the past three days in a row, my friends and I have found coveted seats at one of the wooden tabletops, and sampled our fair share of the relatively small menu.
Begova Corba ($5.50), a traditional Bosnian soup, comes in an enormous bowl that could easily be shared by two or three. This savory broth is loaded with tender carrots, exquisitely delicate slices of the most wondrous okra I have ever tasted, tiny grains of white rice, and juicy pieces of chicken that have been stewed in the pot, pulled from the bone, and then returned to the broth, which shimmers with dark jade flecks of parsley. The soup is ladled over a mound of sour cream that offers a smooth and tart coolness if you scoop it with the warm soup, but as the bowl sits, gradually emulsifies with the broth for a creamy bowl of lemony, buttery chicken deliciousness. It's the best chicken soup I have ever tasted, and makes me wish it were snowing outside as I seek sanctuary from the bitter wind, safe in this cozy green dining room with the world's best chicken soup to warm my chilled extremities. You can also order a more American version of chicken noodle soup, without the sour cream and okra, and the addition of noodles for $4.50.
Each soup is accompanied by a basket of warm lepinja. Like a steamy pita cloud, it's a wondrously soft and fluffy bread that is steamed to form a pocket inside, making it perfect for tearing and dipping into the soups and stews, or scooping the sausages and spreads.
The teleca corba ($5), veal soup, has a similar broth to the begova corba, but is also served without the okra or sour cream, and the addition of long spaghetti noodles with the white rice, the chicken replaced by tender morsels of veal that quite literally dissolve on your tongue.
Also popular is their pasulj, a hearty stew considered a main dish for $10. The thick and creamy bowl is loaded with soft navy beans, as well as inch cubes of salty smoked beef, like tender bits of beef jerky that fall apart at the prodding of a fork. Loaded with flavor, it reminds me of a Balkan take on classic southern pork and beans. Perfect for soaking up with the steaming lapinja bread.
It might be hard to tell by this picture of their meat pie, burek, but gigantic pastry pies appear nearly a foot-and-a-half in diameter, and come piping fresh out of the oven throughout the entire day. $4.50 gets you one slice of either the meat, cheese, or spinach pies; and each slice is actually a quarter of the whole pie! On busy days, you may be asked to return in fifteen minutes if your chosen pie was just finished off and is being replenished. But the upside is that you always get a fresh slice, never a soggy reheated piece like you might find elsewhere.
I positioned the salt and pepper shakers next to this slice of sirnica (cheese pie) for scale. And yes, the outer edge of the crust is almost as wide as the chair directly behind it. It's colossal, and more than enough to share. Putting any local version of tyropita to shame, the flaky puff pastry of buttery sheets of phyllo is crispy on the outside, and ever so moist and chewy inside, filled with a mixture of soft cheeses and egg. Think oven-fresh strudel stuffed with a tangy lasagna cheese blend of creamy ricotta and mild feta.
The zeljanica (spinach pie) is stuffed with a thin layer of fresh spinach, egg, and feta, like an oversized spanakopita browned to golden perfection.
On my next visit, I cannot wait to try the krompirusa, which were just emerging from the oven as we were paying our check. These baked pastry coils are filled with buttery seasoned potatoes and minced onions, and come for $3 for a single roll or $5 for a full order. Also popular are the kupsnjak, cabbage pies available for $4.50.
Although I'm a sucker for pastries, cheese, and potatoes, we couldn't really call it a complete visit without trying the cevapi (chay-VAHP-ee), the house special beef sausage rolls. Each plump sausage is about the size of a roll of quarters, prepared daily at Ukus with ground top sirloin, minced onions, and a blend of seasonings our server simply grinned and refused to reveal, coyly shaking her index finger at us. "Secrets, secrets, secrets..." she laughed.
The half portion ($6) is actually five whole links tucked into a steamed bread pocket, accompanied with diced onions, ajvar, and kajmak. The condiments, as our server explained, are used much like Americans might use ketchup or mayonnaise, and each diner relishes their sandwich with their favorite combination. The gorgeous red tapenade is the ajvar, a blend of roasted red peppers, whipped eggplant, garlic, and chili peppers. More piquant than spicy, and slightly sweet, I slathered it on everything and almost needed to ask for an extra side. Kajmak is a traditional cheese spread made from the milk of mountain cattle, and almost tastes like Italian burrata. Creamy, and often melted on pljeskavica (Balkan hamburger patties), it added a delicious texture and coolness to the cevapi. Rather than eat the sausages like a pita pocket, diners tear pieces from the bread and accent with the condiments to make outrageously delicious pigs in a blanket. The sausages, which have no casings, are wonderfully tender, springy, and tightly cohesive.
The same seasoned sirloin is also hand-pressed into enormous, thin patties, called pljeskavica, and served in the lepinja and accompanied with kajmak and ajvar. With some of the kajmak melted onto the patty, it might honestly be a serious contender for best burger in the area. The beef is seasoned with minced onions and a blend of spices, and is tenderly grilled to perfection.
View of a cross section of the punjena paprika (stuffed pepper)
Like a magnificent Ukus version of a chile relleno, punjena paprika ($10) is simply extraordinary, large green pepper stuffed with minced meat, onions, carrots, rice, and tomatoes, served with a mound of finely mashed potatoes. A lean Balkan meatloaf charged with sweet and mildly spicy flavor, the particularly tender pepper and hearty spuds are surrounded by an intensely savory moat of a beef and vegetable gravy reduction from the stuffed peppers.
Literally every table around us a had plate with one or multiple Tulumbe ($1.50), fried donut sticks which have been soaked overnight in a sweet syrup, and are served chilled. The delicious sticky and crisp coating gives way to moist sponge cake, and reminded a lot of waffles with syrup, the perfect little sweet finale to a hearty meal.
The bombica ($1.50) were like jazzed up snowballs, rum soaked cake the size of a fist filled with decadent custard, rolled in coconut and drizzled with chocolate.
The keks torta ($3) was my personal favorite, with layers of still crunchy petit beurre cookies, layered with creamy vanilla custard and crunchy hazelnuts.
Though they serve a traditional yogurt beverage, chai, espresso, and cappuccino, I opted for their Turkish coffee. A preparation method rather than a type of bean, Turkish coffee involves grinding the beans into the finest powder possible, and then adding the powder directly to water that has been heated to just below boiling. The result is a robust and rich coffee, the last few sips of which are not consumed, as they contain the settled powder of grinds. Though I was hesitant to ask our server if she would perform a reading, the remaining grinds are also traditionally used to read fortunes.
Customers choose their own soft drinks and beverages from a drink case along the wall. Alongside the Coca-Cola and Snapple were imported European fruit juices by Rauch, available in blueberry, strawberry, and mango. 100% fruit juice combined with mineral water, these drinks were particularly sweet but extremely delicious. We sampled both the strawberry and blueberry, and would quickly choose either again during our next visit.
I mean, I will most likely be here again tomorrow, truth be told. In its beautifully executed simplicity, there is something deliciously magical about this place.