Balkan Grill Com­pany is the king of road food

Long- haul truck­ers from across the coun­try know to pull off on Exit 9 in Gary for a taste of home.

Chicago Sun-Times - - SUN-TIMES AGENDA - By MIKE SULA

All day long at the Petro truck stop in Gary, In­di­ana, driv­ers pull in, dis­mount from their cabs, and saunter l azily across the l ong black­top to­ward a grassy patch next to the park­ing lot en­trance. Mut­ter­ing into Blue­tooth ear­pieces, they ap­proach the steps of a raised semi­trailer painted bright yel­low, an­nounc­ing it­self to the park­ing lot with the words balkan grill res­tau­rant. In­side, a stark cargo area con­tains a few high- top ta­bles, a drink cooler filled with bot­tled water and the Slove­nian soft drink Cockta, and a win­dow that sep­a­rates cus­tomers from the kitchen, the reg­is­ter, and Mo­mocilo “Momo” Bog­danovich.

Bog­danovich is the cashier, owner, and cook of t he t hree- year- old es­tab­lish­ment, which serves some of the fresh­est, hottest, hearti­est Ser­bian food in the midwest. When he came to the U. S. ten years ago, Bog­danovich, who has a de­gree i n eco­nomics from the Univer­sity of Bel­grade, found work as a long- haul truck driver. That’s how he learned the rare plea­sure of a home­style meal af­ter many days be­hind the wheel. “All the time when I was on t he road, t he food looked bad,” he says. “Truck- stop food is not good.”

Back in Ser­bia, Bog­danovich’s fam­ily is in the res­tau­rant busi­ness. “Ever since I was a lit­tle kid I was i n the kitchen learn­ing cooki ng,” he says. So he knew what he was get- t i ng i nto when he pur­chased t he va­cated trailer. Things got busy fast, which i s why he never both­ered to paint over a holdover from the for­mer es­tab­lish­ment: fam­ily run busi­ness since 2001.

One bright Septem­ber af­ter­noon, “Chris,” f rom Bul­garia, was tak­ing lunch at one of Balkan Grill’s pic­nic ta­bles set out in the grass be­fore rolling on through In­di­ana to pick up one of the bro­ken- down trucks from his own f leet. “A lot of im­mi­grants from the Balkans get i nto t his busi­ness of t r uck­ing be­cause with­out know­ing much of t he lan­guage or with­out any ed­u­ca­tion you don’t have much other op­por­tu­nity to make a de­cent l iv­ing,” Chris said. “Truck driv­ing is one of the ways to make money.”

I wanted to hear more about how he started and grew his busi­ness, but I could tell he and his driver wanted to get back to their pljeskav­ica, Ser­bia’s gift to t he burger arts. It’s usu­ally built with a char- grilled beef patty the size of some­thing you could wind up and throw for Olympic gold, tucked in the pocket of a warm, pil­lowy f lat­bread called lep­inja, which looks some­thing like a pita on growth hor­mone. It’s served with a f resh, crunchy coleslaw ( ku­pus salata), a chile- tinged or­ange

feta goat cheese spread ( urnebes), and a white gob of ka­j­mak, a lighter, but­tery white cheese spread. If you’ve any sense at all, you smear the cheeses on your patty, pile it with cab­bage and onions, and go to town.

An im­por­tant vari­a­tion of the pljeskav­ica is also avail­able at Balkan Grill. Stuffed with ham and moz­zarella, the gur­man­ska ( a fierce- sound­ing way to say “gourmet”) is Ser­bia’s an­swer to the Juicy Lucy. If you’re at the Petro be­cause you need to clock your fed­er­ally man­dated off- duty hours, this thing will put you right to sleep. If you still have to drive, say, eight or nine more, it’ll get you where you’re go­ing.

All of Bog­danovich’s food be­stows the same nu­tri­tive pow­ers on peo­ple who truly are i n need of it. Here, with an or­der of siz­zling beef ce­vap­cici or long, snappy, salty lengths of tubu­lar house- made pork ros­tiljske koba­sice, you will get, at the very least, a day’s rec­om­mended dose of pro­tein, fat, and car­bo­hy­drates. Same goes for grilled pork chops and ke­babs, chicken t highs and breasts, and gar­licky sl iderli ke beef pat­ties called usti­pak, molded with ham, cheese, and hot pep­pers.

One can also or­der a mixed- grilled sam­pler plat­ter, more than enough to last you through the long haul, for $ 11.99, which is one dol­lar more t han t he most ex­pen­sive item on t he menu ( the gur­man­ska), ex­cept­ing the Balkan Spe­cial Plate, which of­fers four pounds of meat for $ 40.99.

With this lineup, Balkan Grill could cred­i­bly be called a sand­wich shop, but that would fail to prop­erly rep­re­sent t he muck­alica, a goulash­like stew, po­tent with pa­prika and ra­di­ant as a tail­light, abun­dant with sliced sweet red and green pep­per sand juicy pork lo in that falls apart to the touch. Two soups are equally for­ti­fy­ing: veal ( teleca corba), and white bean, t hick and or­ange as lava, with a sin­gle ros­tiljske koba­sice ris­ing from its depths.

When he opened, Bog­danovich had iden­ti­fied an ideal patch of real es­tate to park his kitchen, just south of the I- 80/ 94 off- ramp and six miles from where I- 90 and I- 65 con­verge. There’s a Love’s truck stop com­pet­ing with Petro right across Grant Street. Five days a week f rom 10 AM to 10 PM, driv­ers ar­riv­ing from points all across the map am­ble over from Love’s or neigh­bor­ing Champ’s Liquors swing­ing plas­tic bags in their hands. Th­ese guys know they can skip the Taco Bell, the Denny’s, and the Iron Skil­let all squeezed in­side Petro, and in­stead fuel upon the food they were raised on.

| WIL­LIAM CAMARGO

The pljeskav­ica is Ser­bia’s gift to the burger arts. A vari­a­tion stuffed with ham and moz­zarella, the gur­man­ska, is Ser­bia’s an­swer to the Juicy Lucy.

WIL­LIAM CAMARGO

Balkan Grill Com­pany is parked near a traf­fic- heavy high­way junc­tion, ad­ja­cent to two com­pet­ing truck stops.

WIL­LIAM CAMARGO

Cook Drage Pet­roski, left, and Balkan Grill Com­pany owner Mo­mocilo “Momo” Bog­danovich

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