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“This tastes like love,” my cousin said, thrusting her fork into a bundle of stuffed cabbage and wrapping it around a cloud of mashed potatoes. She’s not one to make sentimental jokes like that, so I knew the flavors had really moved her.

Cabbage rolls stuffed with ground beef and rice are pure grandma’s comfort food for Eastern European Jews, but the one at Cafe Balkan was a bit different from the cabbage we had at home and at Chompie’s, our home-away-from-home, growing up.

Instead of a thick tomato sauce, usually sweetened with ginger buds, these cabbage rolls had a thinner, silkier sauce that complemented the dish perfectly. The cabbage leaves themselves had a slightly sour flavor because rather than being blanched in water, they had been pickled.

It’s the hallmark of sarma, the signature dish of the Balkans, a peninsula in southeastern Europe that encompasses nations like Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Croatia.

Cabbage stuffed with mashed potatoes is a staple of Balkan cuisine.

“Who needs good karma when you have good sarma?” read a cheeky sign on the restaurant wall next to a map of the area. I couldn’t agree more.

During our visit, late summer storms raged through the North Phoenix parking lot, trapping everyone in the brightly lit dining area. But with all that intriguing comfort food, no one seemed too upset.

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Besides the sarma, we ordered a huge variety of cevapi sausages, roasted red peppers, and wonderful homemade flatbreads called lepinja, which were pita-shaped with a chewy texture like Italian focaccia.

Delicate palacinke pancakes stuffed with a Eurocrem hazelnut and chocolate spread were on their way.

And if we had to stay a little longer to ride out the storm, I could have spent even more time exploring the market filled with Eastern European products like frozen spinach pastries and colorful bags of peanut puffs.

Balkan Bakery has a small market with products from Eastern Europe.

The bakery display case alone was a veritable treasure trove of new wonders like crunchy almond bars, swirled raspberry cakes, flower-shaped cookie sandwiches and intricate packets of dough labeled as nectarine roses. On another visit, I marveled at a cake called krempita, whose shell of powdered puff pastry gave way to a big block of yellow custard.

These are all specialties from Serbia and Montenegro, where owners Radmila Minic and Stevan Panic are from. Minic is a classically trained chef who previously owned a Balkan restaurant in Wisconsin and Panic is an event planner who brings musicians from Europe to perform in Arizona through his company, Panic Music Promotion. A flyer posted out front announces his upcoming show with Serbian singer Lepa Brena, at CB Live Desert Ridge.

The two met while Minic was catering for Panic shows and they decided to open their own Balkan restaurant in an area north of Phoenix known for its strong Balkan and Eastern European food community. East.

Everything is made from scratch, from pastries and bread, to pickled cabbage in sarma. The restaurant quickly became a community center where students and business people from the community gather, some of them three times a day, Panic said.

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Palacinké is a Balkan pancake filled with a milk chocolate spread and crushed biscuits.

Balkan cuisine beyond the meat plate

Balkan restaurants are usually known for their generous platters of meat accompanied by red pepper dip ajvar, which has been described as Macedonian hummus. Due to its geography, the cuisine is influenced by the flavors of Eastern Europe and Turkey. Iconic dishes like cevapi, a ground beef sausage, were developed over the centuries of Ottoman Empire rule.

I’ve tried various versions of this dish, but none are as juicy as Cafe Balkan’s cevapi – the rocky the charred exterior gave way to a soft center – where they were served with chopped raw onions, ajvar and a Balkan sour cream cheese called kajmak, which I spread on the soft flatbread to make a cevapi sandwich. The battered fries on the side were a welcome addition, definitely crispy and delicious.

Cafe Balkan's hearty bean soup is loaded with sausages.

We also enjoyed a plate of smeared red peppers called paprika, which had been roasted over an open fire and drizzled with olive oil and a little vinegar.

While they were fresh and vegetal, I mostly put them aside to dip into my favorite of the evening, a bean stew called pasulj. Sumptuously tossed and creamy with cooked vegetables like celery and onions, the dish was topped with crunchy veal sausage half-moons that added an extra savory note.

Like the cabbage we started our meal with, the pasulj was both familiar and new – pure comfort food, with a little extra spice.

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Balkan coffee

Where: 21043 N. Cave Creek Road, Suite A6, Phoenix.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.

Price: Soups $7.50 to $8.50; grills from $9.50 to $16.50; entrees $13.50 to $17.50.

Details: 602-283-5360, cafebalkanaz.com.

Contact journalist Andi Berlin at amb[email protected] Follow her on Facebook @andiberlin, Instagram @andiberlin or Twitter @andiberlin.

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