Burritos in Bosnia
Texas, a restaurant in Sarajevo.
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What’s the easiest way to get to Texas? Well, I reckon that depends on your locale at any given moment. Ringo Starr might have said to take a left at Oklahoma but I think it’s easier if you look for the big blue stars above the front door just west of Old-Town.
Texas, a Tex-Mex restaurant
in Sarajevo, Bosnia,
lures diners from across the
Old-Town Sarajevo, that is. On the east bank of the Miljaska River, in the foothills of the Alps, is a little slice of heaven the citizens of war-torn Bosnia simply call Texas. One of only three American-owned businesses, the restaurant has been open six months, offering southwestern fare seven days a week to a culture unabashedly willing to try just about anything Yankee.
“I’ll have the bah-ree-toes,” is heard from one table. “A Texas steak and a margarita,” comes in a thick Slavic drawl from another. The enthusiasm is high and the blood pressures even higher with each customer’s inaugural bite into a bowl of fiery chili. Folks with curious appetites come for a legendary taste and leave with flaming lips and Willie Nelson lyrics in their heads.
How did I get to Texas?
The boss-lady, Bethany Lindsley, summoned me. A native Texan with the motto, “the secret is to believe,” she said that whatever I was doing back in the States could wait and that I needed to get my hind-end across the earth on the double. Combine 30,000 troops in the area, all yearning for a taste of home, with a little pro-American sentiment amongst the natives, and the only logical conclusion was to open a Tex-mex restaurant amongst the rubble and bomb-hollowed buildings. My job? To manage a Bosnian wait-staff, teach them how to act American and sell the heck out of some fajitas.
The thing we wanted to accomplish from the outset—besides the suspension of disbelief—was the creation of authentic, lip-perspiring, satisfying Tex-Mex food, presented in a festive atmosphere with prompt, yet courteous, service. This was a tall order for a place where residents are only now, after six years, beginning to realize what it is to live in structures with four walls and plumbing. Not only was fun not exactly a priority then, but ingredients and basic restaurant equipment were practically non-existent.
Still, we managed to get Texas off the ground, and a few unconventional, yet absolutely necessary, practices continue to keep us afloat. Amongst the most evident oddities is that we employ shoppers, two inventive fellas who work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, scouting the city for ingredients that might possibly “Tex-ify” the food. They are briefed daily on the needs of the moment and then sent on their way to scour the local markets. Bold experimentation is the most important element here, and from this unflappable daring Bosnians have learned to create Tex-Mex food to rival any made back in the States.
No Substitution for a Quick Mind
No cilantro to be found? No worries. This dish needs more cayenne? Add more paprika.
Warfield “Paco” Rodgers, Texas head chef and resident magician, has become a master at substitutions. Using ingredients never before found in Tex-Mex food, Paco has conjured up a spicy southwestern menu and a loyal clientele to go along with it. Once thought a near impossible concept in post-communist Eastern Europe, now it’s all in a days work.
One evening a table of Texans told me that they almost cried after eating the fajitas and enchiladas. “We gave up home when we came to Eastern Europe—we thought—but after the hot jalapeños and hot sauce (made of a local pepper called a fefferoni in a paprika-based salsa) we have a new reason to remember home.” The native Texan troops are equally bold when a dish is not up to snuff.
After some tasty experimentation and input from the staff, the very special Texas Margarita was born. It defied all odds and stands up to its nightly billing as the best margarita in town.
Because of the oddity of the ingredients we use, we pay a bit more in production costs but we also have an inordinate amount of return customers. Locals who never dreamed of consuming hot “anything” now can’t get enough of the “five-alarm” chili. Daily trips to the market to buy all the avocados available in the entire country—at ten times stateside prices—are crucial to the postwar population traveling from far across town for their weekly guacamole fix, especially on the occasion they find we are sold out.
It is not only the food with which we must be inventive, either. As the sole importer of tequila to the country, we take pride in our margarita. “My first job upon arriving in Sarajevo was to concoct the world’s greatest margarita without the aid of sweet and sour mix or even limes, which simply do not exist in Bosnia,” said Gavin Asdorian from behind the finely polished dark wood and brass of his bar. “When I inquired about getting limes to mix the drink properly, the Bosnian employees thought I was nuts. ‘Green lemons,’ they said, ‘why on earth would anyone want to eat unripe fruit?’ To my happy surprise, cocktail guides don’t even mention limes in the ingredients. This gave me some confidence and room for improv.”
After some tasty experimentation and input from the staff, the very special Texas Margarita was born. It defied all odds and stands up nightly to its billing as “the best margarita in town.”
This is not to say that we aren’t prepared with enough fresh meats and vegetables to give the customers everything they ever imagined Texas (or, as the phonetic-minded Bosnians spell it, ‘Teksas’) could be. It is just that this is not America, where the ingredients needed to make the perfect enchilada abound in grocery stores on every corner. On any given night it is the employee’s job to improvise and create with the resources available. One evening, after three rushes and the threat of a fourth, the kitchen announced that the week’s supply of flour had been blown and not a single tortilla could be made—thus I witnessed the birth of enchilada, burrito, and fajita burgers. So, as you can see, here at Texas, one thing we can’t substitute is a quick and clear mind—we still have requests for chicken fajita burgers to this day.
A Cultural Phenomenon
We had a pretty good idea that the food would sell . . .
But we weren’t ready for the storming appreciation by American ex-pats and locals alike, and of the culinary spark Texas added to a country praying for any light at the end of the tunnel. We were a cultural phenomenon in the making. It became evident after the first month that we were the place to eat in town— people were literally traveling for hours to get to Texas. And with the present and potential volume of business, it was evident that diners could not be encouraged to luxuriate over the last drops of their coffee with typical European repose—a practice that becomes more leisurely the further east you travel. It was not our intention to move people like cattle, but we did want to have a reasonable turn-over, giving as many folks a taste of Texas as possible. This meant that arriving on hallowed Texas soil would require a bit of a change in the local cultural mindset.
“I will not do it,” Melanie, a Bosnian waitress, told me after I asked her to drop a check at a group who had occupied a table for four hours. “People do not pay good money just to get shown the door.”
I told her I agreed but that this was no Turkish coffee house and she did not need to feel that she was offending anyone by presenting the bill before the customer asked for it.
But again she insisted, “I can not.”
I mustered my American “go get ‘em” and reminded her that not only could she but she would. I learned quickly that the folks in Bosnia are as strong-minded as they are tall (men average about 6’2” and women are typically at least 5’10”) and handsome. She never did drop the check.
As when dealing with any new group of employees—especially ones with a different culture and customs—it’s best to at least try to see things their way. So we compromised—sort of. Turning tables is now in the job description. But the management recognizes it is a practice that Bosnians do not believe appropriate and so the rule is frequently overlooked. In this way Texas will never be fully Americanized—and probably has no right to be. The important thing is that everyone who works there is proud to be a part of the team bringing the mythic taste of Texas to the deserving folks of Bosnia. It’s a pioneer effort that is probably closer to the real spirit of Texas than the Bosnian employees realize.
Through a perseverance few stateside restaurants would believe, Texas has prospered. Some customers come because they want to know what it is to dine American-style, others are merely homesick, happy to belly-up to the bar and enjoy a cold one beneath the familiar Lone Star flag. Whatever the reasons for Texas’ success, I doubt if anyone would have predicted that the proud people of Bosnia would finally celebrate the end of four years of civil war with ice-cold margaritas and the fiery sweet taste of jalapeño peppers.
The Best Margarita in Town
Texas Bartender Gavan Asdorian serves up Sarajevo's best margarita
The Bosnian Margarita
One part tequila
One part freshly-squeezed lemon juice
One part lemon syrup concentrate
Two parts water
And the secret ingredient—a dash of mandarin liqueur.
Bomb-hollowed building across the street from Texas Bomb-hollowed building across the street from Texas.
Four years of civil war and the shattered relics of 1,000 years of history envelope Sarajevo. One decade prior the city boasted a modern skyline, which was the pride of Europe and host of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. The Parliament building, just a handful of blocks from Texas, acted as the front line. It still stands in disrepair. Governors and foreign officials crowd into the former museum for matters of state.
Two years after the war, commerce is starting to flock back to the gateway to the East. A western migration is being felt with the development of an economy and businesses such as Texas.
Sarajevo boasts one of the lowest crime rates in all of Europe and rumors swell about the possibility of another Winter Olympic bid.
Bosnians know their cattle. If there is one thing we always have, it’s beef.
—Warfield Paco Rodgers, head chef of Texas
This might be true but it’s Paco that makes it right.
8 ounces of Bosnian, aged tenderloin rubbed with salt and pepper, marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and oregano, and cooked to order. Texas serves the steak with sautèed red peppers and onions, roasted herb potatoes, and Mexican fried rice.
Homemade barbecue sauce finishes the dish and keeps ‘em coming back for more.
16 ounces tomato paste
4 ounces of honey
3 tablespoons butter
the juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine with a small, caramelized onion and 2 cloves of garlic and let simmer for 15 minutes and you’ve got the best darn barbecue sauce this side of the Atlantic.