The first time I came to Bulgaria, I entered via the dusty no-man's land between Giurgiu and Ruse. Standing all alone on the edge of Romania, I watched as shifty-eyed travellers shoved contraband cigarettes into their luggage and trekked down an unpaved road towards the border. From my vantage point, Bulgaria did not look terribly inviting.
Since then, my view of this country has changed dramatically. I've spent so much time here over the past three years that I now consider it my second home. And for me, feeling truly comfortable in a place involves eating like a local.
As a native of Los Angeles, I've always had a love for the less travelled spots around my city. The small ethnic restaurants with exotic dishes and the time-worn greasy spoons that are part of the history and folklore of LA are my favourite haunts. Here in Bulgaria, I've been introduced to Sofia's version of this restaurant genre.
Every city has its classic watering holes. New Orleans has Café Du Monde, Los Angeles has Phillipes French Dip Sandwiches and New York has The Oyster Bar. These are places that have been around for generations - where locals remember their first culinary experiences as childhood rites of passage. Thanks to 45 years of Communism, there are scant few of these classic restaurants here in Sofia. The Czechoslovakian Club (15 Krakra St, phone: 441 383) is one of them. Opened in 1892 as a social club for people with Czech or Slovak ancestry living in Sofia, the non-political club is often the first stop for Czech and Slovak dignitaries passing through Bulgaria. As the manager explains, they stop here for lunch, then they go to the embassy. Housed in an elegant turn-of-the-19th-century building, the club has two dining rooms - one for members and one for non-members; at least that was the theory. Now one is for smokers and the other is for non-smokers (guess which one is always full and which one is usually half-empty!). The décor of the non-members room has changed very little in the past 50 years, and neither has the menu. During Communism they served imported Czech beer here – a very rare treat at the time. My favourite thing here is actually a side dish. It's a doughy, bread-like, dumplingy thing called knedly. It has the consistency of an unbaked bagel and looks a bit like uncooked bread. It's served beside several hearty meat dishes. I also like the stewed pork with sour cabbage. It's not a light meal but it's worth the calories. Be sure to come here hungry and be prepared to leave very full.
Another rare old-timer is Vkusnoto kebapche, or The Delicious Kebapche, (20 San Stefano St, phone: 946 2027). It's an apt name for a place that serves just that. It doesn't look like much from the outside, or the inside for that matter, but the food is always great if not a bit simple. Basically it's all about the grilled meat and always has been. My fiancée has ordered the kebapche here for more than 40 years! The thing I love most about this little gem of an eatery is the familiarity of its patrons. A tiny neighbourhood restaurant it may be, but it is a regular dining spot for Sofia's creative community. Artists, actors, theatre people and filmmakers all come here for a little skewered meat and conversation. Located just a block away from the studios of the Bulgarian National Television, there are a lot of famous Bulgarian faces to be seen here. Sitting outside on a warm spring day, which I highly recommend as the smoke inside can be unbearable, you really feel like part of the city.
Just around the corner from my house is Vagabond Restaurant (5 Svetoslav Terter St, phone: 944 1465). It's another place where I know everyone and feel right at home. Situated in a quiet residential neighbourhood, it might be a little hard to find but it's worth the hunt. The restaurant is made up of several rooms in an old house, each one painted with colourful frescos. A few of the little rooms have fireplaces. On a cold night, I love to come here to sit beside the fire and eat stuffed grape leaves, they're the best I've ever had. That's not the only amazing thing on the menu here. They also have a dish called pelmeni, which is a sort of pasta stuffed with meat, the Russian answer to tortellini. It's so authentic that the owners have it prepared by an old Russian lady in the neighbourhood.
On the other side of town is my favourite Turkish restaurant, Istanbul 2000 (104 Kiril i Metodiy St, phone: 931 6026). Walking there, the only foreigners you see are usually clutching their bags tightly, which is always a good idea in this part of town. To get to this tiny café tucked away on a small street behind Zhenski pazar, or Women's Market, you traverse some of the oldest streets in Sofia. One of the few neighbourhoods to survive American bombs during the Second World War, the crumbling buildings here give you a clue as to what this city looked like pre-war. Sadly, the owner of Istanbul 2000 says that few foreigners venture down here after dark: “They're just not used to the drunk Gypsies and the occasional fist fights like the Bulgarians are.” If you come while the sun is still up you should be fine. The menu here seems a bit like traditional Bulgarian food but it's not. The spices and cooking techniques are very different. They have kebabs and salads but there's no pork on the menu and less yoghurt. They also make a fantastic sort of Turkish pizza in a wood-burning oven. Though the menu may look extensive, they've often run out of many things. It's a testament to the owner's commitment to fresh food prepared correctly. For example, he doesn't serve Turkish coffee any more. He didn't feel his staff were skilled enough to make it the right way. Now that's dedication I want to see displayed by as many Bulgarian restaurant owners as possible!
Just around the corner from Istanbul 2000 is Ege Türk Lokantası. What this little hole-in-the-wall lacks in décor it makes up for in great food and colourful patrons. The first time I ate here, I read the menu – a few items listed on a chalkboard - beside a very large Turkish man with a full set of gold teeth and a neck draped with thick gold chains. He looked like a man who could eat anywhere he wanted to (who'd stop him?) and he chose to eat there. As it turns out, he picked a great place. Though Bulgarians would classify this as “fast food”, it's nothing like the fast food that Americans are used to. Yes, it's prepared fast, but everything here is fresh and home-made. They have a wood-burning oven in the back where they make fresh bread and grill meats. The musaka is amazing and the meatballs on a tile are divine. This is one of those places that feels like a real find. We once asked the waitress if they get many English-speaking customers. Apparently, they get a few English speaking Arabs every so often, but very few, if not any, Brits or Americans. There is no English menu here nor are there any English speaking waiters or waitresses. So come ready to do some creative gesturing and pointing to get what you want.
On Sundays back in Los Angeles, I like to take long drives up the coast for lunch. The Sofian version of the same thing involves venturing up Vitosha Boulevard and beyond to my favourite Sunday lunch spot. Vodenitsata, or The Watermill, (Vitosha Park by the Dragalevtsi cable car, phone: 967 1058), may look like a typical Bulgarian tourist trap with every Balkan knick-knack imaginable on the walls but it's much more than that, it's part of Sofia's past. Located half way up the street, this large restaurant sits beside a chair lift that operates round the year. After a long day spent skiing I would stop here for the house speciality: a steaming bowl of polenta covered in butter and white cheese. Although I think the polenta is great, I'm happy that they now have a much larger menu. In fact, the menu is so large it looks like a book. You can get just almost any traditional Bulgarian dish here, and most are amazingly good. If you want to get a feel for how it used to be, take the chair lift up and walk back down. The surrounding forests haven't changed a bit.
When I want to feel like I've really out of town without going too far, I venture out to Brezite, or The White Birch Trees, (1 Raztovarishte St, Bankya, phone: 997 8993). It's roughly a 45-minute drive up into the mountain. Just like the name implies, the restaurant sits amid a grove of beautiful white birch trees with a large outside patio along a well travelled road. In fact, Brezite is the Bulgarian version of a roadhouse. Just like any good roadhouse worth its salt back in the United States, it attracts bikers, car clubs and day-trippers from all over. The last time I was there I shared the patio with the Citroen car club and a wedding party from a distant village. Part of what draws people here is the drive itself. The road winds through picturesque villages, past shepherds with their goats and small herds of grazing cattle. Once you arrive, it's all about the home-made sheep's yoghurt: a rare find outside of remote villages. The tarator, or yoghurt-and-cucumber cold soup, here is unlike anything you'll have back down in Sofia. They also grill meats in an outside oven and have a long list of delicious salads. It's well worth the beautiful drive.
Just like any foreign country, there are things here that just don't appeal to American tastes. For example, the brown mushy drink called boza tastes to me like something someone's already chewed up and spat out. Another example of that is the Bulgarians' love for parts of an animal that we wouldn't normally consider fine eating. Organs and innards that only make their way to the American table in the form of a hot dog are delicacies here. One such dish is a thing called drob sarma. It's rice, greens and herbs mixed with lamb's livers and various lamb innards. Normally, this is a bit exotic for me, but at Kandahar, a small family owned restaurant near Levski Stadium, (4 Evlogi Georgiev St, phone: 865 2535), they make a version of this that I absolutely love. There, drob sarma comes as a side dish with roasted lamb that is also amazing. I love to have it in the spring when lamb is in season and you can sit outside away from the smoke. The surroundings are simple and the garden small, but the drob sarma is reason enough to try Kandahar.
As much as I like all things Bulgarian every so often I like a taste of home. Not being much of a fast food eater, Pizza Hut or KFC just won't do the trick. When I'm feeling a bit homesick I like to go to The Red House Café (15 Lyuben Karavelov St, phone: 988 1888). Located in the basement and garden of The Red House Gallery, the café here feels like something you'd find in New York or San Francisco. You can get a plate of French or Bulgarian cheese and a nice bottle of wine. But its not really the food here that reminds me of home, it's the atmosphere. Red walls and the patio with black, red and white tables give it that East Village feeling. What I really like about it is that it's like a little home with a large dose of Bulgarian charm. It's a nice mix of Bulgaria and the United States, just like my life over the past years.