If I ranked the STL 100 by the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about each restaurant, Balkan Treat Box would be No. 1 or 2. (I’ve also thought an awful lot about Vicia.) Loryn Feliciano-Nalic’s food truck entered regular service only last year and already has become an essential part of our restaurant scene thanks to its incredible versions of Bosnian cevapi and Turkish pide, a flatbread topped with ground beef, a blend of piknik and mozzarella cheeses, the red-pepper relish ajvar and creamy kajmak. Feliciano-Nalic bakes the pide and the ethereal somun bread that cradles the cevapi in the truck’s wood-fired oven, and not a little of the time I spend thinking about Balkan Treat Box is wondering how many more wonders she could produce from a bigger oven inside a traditional restaurant.
Straight Outta the Balkans: Balkan Treat Box
Did you know the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe is in St. Louis? Surprise! You could head to “Little Bosnia,” better known as Bevo Mill, or you could track down the Balkan Treat Box food truck. Owners Loryn and Edo Nalic combine their Balkan background with their experience working at some of St. Louis’ best restaurants to create unforgettable dishes. The flavor is unreal—almost all the dishes are cooked using the truck’s built-in wood-fired grill and oven. Pillowy somun bread is baked fresh; minced beef sausages called cevapi are grilled to order and served with a spicy red pepper relish. The real star, though, is the Turkish-inspired pide, a grilled flatbread stuffed with meat or cheese; it’s like the missing link between a pizza and a calzone.
By Stefanie Ellis | January 3, 2018 12:00 pm
It might give some people pause to step into a St. Louis bakery and have their order taken by a woman dressed in something that looks like a 1960s-era bathrobe, complete with clogs and a hair net. But being served by a kitchen maven who resembles your grandmother is not an unusual sight in St. Louis – and here, your grandmother will also have a Bosnian accent.
When we walked into Zlatne Kapi, we were greeted by such a woman, and met with curious stares from men in construction clothes who were watching a Bosnian sporting event while speaking the language of their home country.
We ordered tulumbe – gloriously tender, airy, and syrupy pastries that look like bloated eclairs and taste like the lovechild of baklava and funnel cake – and hurmašice, moist coconut cake slices doused in sugar syrup. On our way out, we gave our hostess a hug as the men looked on. Though she appeared stunned, she squeezed back.
Just a few decades ago, such a scene would never have existed in the U.S. But it’s quite common now in St. Louis, which boasts the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe – an estimated 50,000 to 70,000. The south St. Louis neighborhood known as Little Bosnia has played an integral role in the city’s evolving culinary landscape.
Little Bosnia has bakeries, grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants stocked with food from the former Yugoslavian country. But once upon a time, this neighborhood was blighted and struggling mightily. Its transformation into its current state is a bittersweet story, as most Bosnians who call St. Louis home had to escape devastating circumstances during the Bosnian War between 1992-1995, and rebuild their lives in an unfamiliar country.
Ben Moore, director of the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne University, who documents stories of genocide survivors, says the first Bosnians arrived in St. Louis in 1993, and were mainly concentration camp survivors.
“There was a steady flow of Bosnians into St. Louis – and cities such as Denver, Grand Rapids and Chicago – because of decisions made by bureaucrats in Washington that the Midwest would be a preferable destination, because the cost of living was low, and there wouldn’t be as much competition with other immigrant groups for jobs,” he says,
In 1998, when Bosnian refugees who lived in Germany were told they had to leave, Madeline Albright made arrangements for them to come to the U.S. By that point, St. Louis had become an attractive destination. Add to that a secondary migration of Bosnians from other parts of the U.S., and St. Louis soon developed the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe.
“When we look at Bosnian immigration,” says Moore, “we see the very worst that humans can experience and then we see the other side — the best that humans can be. They’ve brought out the best in south St Louis.”
Sulejman and Ermina Grbic, who own Grbic, St. Louis’ longest-running Bosnian restaurant – as well as Lemmons, which their daughters, Senada and Erna, run – have also brought out the best in the community by offering Bosnian refugees jobs at their restaurant and a taste of their homeland.
Lemmons was a long-time fried chicken restaurant before the Grbic family took it over. Senada and Erna were born in St. Louis, but grew up steeped in their mother’s homecooking. Rather than go the traditional route, though, the sisters decided to infuse their menu with their experience of growing up in America into the Bosnian homecooking they ate as children.
“Growing up, we wanted to eat what other kids at our school were eating,” remembers Erna. “They had chips and sandwiches, but my mom said, ‘You are never going to eat a bologna sandwich.’
“We were bringing sarma (stuffed cabbage with beef and rice), sauerkraut and fresh bread to school,” says Senada, laughing. “We’d tell our mom our friends ate tacos and she wouldn’t let us eat tacos. Finally she made veal tacos with Vegeta seasoning, and we’d use Bosnian farmers cheese instead of cheddar. They were delicious. That’s where the fusion started.”
The sisters represent a new crop of chefs who are putting their own stamp on an already-established Bosnian food scene in St. Louis – keeping to tradition while innovating in a way that’s unique to the needs of the community they serve.
Lemmon’s serves dishes like traditional kabobs, but glazed with sweet chili sauce, as well as flatbread pizza with cevapi – minced meat in the shape of a sausage – feta butter and mozzarella, which confuses Bosnian customers, since cevapi is commonly served in the pita-like Bosnian bread, lepinja. They also make their own spin on fried chicken — Bosnian schnitzel brined in buttermilk and battered — as well as chicken wings marinated in plum rakija (brandy).
“One of the reasons Bosnians have been so successful in St. Louis is because they can fuse things from their own culture with existing components of St. Louis culture,” says Moore.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Loryn Nalic, a St. Louis chef without an ounce of Balkan in her blood, who worked at restaurants across the city before stumbling into a love of all things Bosnian. Her husband, Edo, who is from Zvornik, came to St. Louis via Germany with his family in 1998. After Loryn’s first meal at Edo’s house, she was so hooked on Bosnian food, she went to Bosnia for two months to study with chefs and home cooks, then opened a food truck, the Balkan Treat Box, so she could make Bosnian food full-time.
Though not based in Little Bosnia, she’s a roving representative for the cuisine, and spreads the Bosnian food gospel across her city.
“We were recognized as one of the best new restaurants in St. Louis,” says Nalic. “It’s a food truck…and it’s Balkan food. When has that ever happened?”
Nalic says her chef friends have started sending her photos of their own home-cooked Bosnian meals, inspired by what she’s doing.
“It’s huge to know how this is touching people,” she says.
Seoul Taco. Guerrilla Street Food. Frankly Sausages. The food truck that outshines the traditional brick-and-mortar competition is no longer a surprise. To this roster you can now add Balkan Treat Box, which chef-owner Loryn Feliciano-Nalic first announced in 2015 but didn’t roll into regular service until this year. Feliciano-Nalic installed a wood-burning oven in her truck, and in this she bakes the Turkish flatbread called pide (topped with ground beef and piknik cheese) and the somun bread for plump Bosnian cevapi and a juicy chicken döner kebab. That’s essentially the entire menu, but the wood-fired breads are sublime, and those dishes are more than enough to recommend Balkan Treat Box — and to suggest, like the trucks listed above, the concept is bound for even bigger things.
No 17: St. Louis, MO
This year, chefs in The Gateway City prove there’s no place like home. Vicia — the year’s biggest opening and a Bon Appétit best new restaurants finalist — brought chef Michael Gallina (previously Blue Hill at Stone Barns) back to his hometown, and NYC’s Danny Meyer makes a homecoming of his own with the opening of the state’s first Shake Shack.
Local chefs are working to present elevated concepts in an accessible way, like Privado from chef Mike Randolph (Público, James Beard semifinalist), serving intimate tasting menu dinners twice a week, and Square1 Project, a pop-up concept at a secret location from St. Louis native Logan Ely.
An incredible food truck community — which includes Balkan Treat Box and Guerilla Street Food — and restaurants like Nudo House and Nixta are introducing local palates to global cuisine, while quick-serve burger joints like Hi-Pointe Drive-In and Mac's Local Eats are slinging high-quality bites.
It takes a seriously dedicated chef to cook with a wood-fired oven aboard a food truck. Enter Loryn Feliciano-Nalic, who hit the road with Balkan Treat Box last spring with her husband, Edo. The truck serves up the “fire-roasted flavors of the Balkans,” and Feliciano-Nalic says the oven – which customers can peek into while ordering – was a no-brainer when it came to making sure her recipes were as authentic as possible. On first glance, the menu might sound simple. There are only a handful of dishes on offer, but the spit-roasted chicken döner kebab is shaved to order, the wood-fired bread, somun, is baked on the truck daily, and dollops of spicy ajvar (a roasted red-pepper relish) are spooned over stuffed pide (a Turkish flatbread). Feliciano-Nalic says Balkan Treat Box was a labor of love, and you’ll be able to taste it in every bite. (Author Heather Riske, Photo by Jacklyn Meyer)
WHISKY AND SOBA's review:
"Balkan Treat Box is the best food truck in St. Louis. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say the food coming out of this is more flavorful and exciting than the food you find at a lot of restaurants in town.
There are really two ways you can treat a food truck: you can use it as a mobile food delivery service (scoop-and-serve; you’re bringing pre-cooked food to people) or you can use it as a mobile restaurant, which is what owners Loryn and Edo Nalic do.
What you get when you order from their truck is truly freshly made as you wait. Well, besides the airy somun bread (pita’s Bosnian cousin), which is baked fresh in the truck’s goddamn wood-fired oven just before service.
The cevapi (che-va-pee) are like mini-sausages made of a simple mix of ground beef mixed with onion and garlic, finished on the goddamn wood-fired grill—yes, they have a grill and oven inside of their truck, and yes, it’s about 1,000 degrees in there during the summer. Don’t be deceived by the simplicity; I can’t stop eating this hamburger stick sandwich, served with kajmak (kind of like a cream cheese) and ajvar (a mildly spicy roasted red pepper relish).
For the döner kebab—one of the world’s great drunk foods—Loryn makes seasons chicken thighs with aleppo, urfa, fresh herbs, sumac, and more before stacking them into a meat mountain and letting them slowly roast on a spit until their edges are crispy. The end result, a mix of crunchy, juicy chicken on somun with cabbage salad, lettuce, tomato, and a yogurt-based doner sauce, is one of the best sandwiches in town.
Now let’s talk about my two favorite things that Balkan makes: the pide (pee-day) and the lahmacun (la-ma-june).
Imagine a Turkish man making a calzone, but getting distracted in the middle. That’s the pide. It’s like an enormous boat filled with filled with seasoned meat, Turkish cheese, kajmak, and ajvar, and it’s also one of the world’s great drunk foods.
You probably won’t finish it in one seating unless you’re sharing or an impressive eater, but if you’re sharing this, you’re dumb. Make your friend/coworker/spouse/child order their own. Take your leftovers and eat them for breakfast the next day.
Side note: Once in a blue moon, Balkan Treat Box teams up with the Stellar Hog for The Stellar Pide, where they use chef Alex Cupp’s smoked brisket. It’s one of the best things I ate in 2017.
Finally, the lahmacun. This is almost as rare as The Stellar Pide, but I’m hoping this post and your vocal support will change things.
Loryn rolls out the somun dough until flattened, like a gigantic Bosnian tortilla, tops it with spiced ground lamb, then fires it in the oven. Once it’s cooked, it’s topped with lemon, parsley salad, cabbage, herbs, tomato, and the doner yogurt sauce, then rolled up (or not—your call…but get it rolled). I cannot accurately express to you how delicious it is, but I can tell you that when I bite into it, this is what I hear.
Hunt down Balkan Treat Box. Give them your money. Help them open a restaurant. Make St. Louis a better place. Thank you."
Loryn Nalic's red and turquoise food truck, the Balkan Treat Box, has been rolling around town since December 2016. She originally fell in love with Bosnian food through her husband and then visited the country to perfect her technique. She now makes old world, traditional dishes seem contemporary, relevant and accessible. If you love bread (and who doesn't?), you'll be particularly happy to know that she makes two kinds of bread each day in the truck's wood oven, serving it fresh. Photo by Sara Bannoura from the Riverfront Times
No. 4: Balkan Treat Box
Food trucks are restaurants. But there’s no sleek space, no cutting-edge decor – the food is the only attraction to draw diners in. Since Balkan Treat Box hit the road late last year, owners Loryn Feliciano-Nalic and her husband, Edo Nalic, have cultivated a dedicated following. The truck focuses on the cuisine of the Balkan States, and fans flock for a taste.
Feliciano-Nalic, who has an extensive background in pastry, explored the food of the Balkans while visiting her in-laws in Bosnia.
“I realized there was a lot of pastry in that food in general, even on the savory side, so it kind of spoke to me,” she said.
Many of the truck’s rotating offerings are built on a base of somun, a Balkan bread similar to a pita, and pide, a Turkish flatbread. Feliciano-Nalic makes her bread fresh daily in a wood-fired oven at the back of the truck. It’s the attention to detail that elevates Balkan Treat Box well above the norm. No thaw-and-go bread here.
The condiments offered are subtle, meant to compliment but not overwhelm, like ajvar, a roasted red pepper spread; kajmak, a tangy cream cheese; and shredded purple cabbage for textural contrast.
While the names of the dishes might seem foreign to some, the flavors and ingredients are ultimately familiar and comforting – peppery house-made sausage, chicken, onion, cheese and those fragrant, fresh breads. It’s just like being in Grandma’s kitchen, if Granny drove a truck.
Follow the BOSNIAN RESTAURANT SCENE links for our mention in FOOD AND WINE
From nationally-renowned (and award-winning) fine dining to Filipino street food to a vibrant little Bosnian restaurant scene to new ideas on old fronts (yes, like barbecue), don't just stop in St. Louis if you happen to be passing through—make a date with the city, come here, and eat the best of what it's offering, right now. Here are just five places to get you started.