A Bosnian dish served in a curious setting

Eating on the Edge: After several other food ventures, a restaurateur tries his hand at serving his native land's signature dish in Tukwila. Variety? Does the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago worry about that?

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The cevapi served at Dino's Grill.

Eating on the Edge: After several other food ventures, a restaurateur tries his hand at serving his native land's signature dish in Tukwila. Variety? Does the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago worry about that?

As a way to get to the airport, the light rail line from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac is barely an improvement from the No. 194 express bus it replaced. The train is roomier and quieter, although no faster or even slower than the old bus when you add the time it takes to walk from the rail station to the airline terminal.

The train does not take bus transfers, and so can be more expensive, nor does it stop downtown at street level, and so can be more work than it seems to be worth sometimes. But bear with the truncated journey, and a largely unseen city begins to unfold along the way.

The defunct airport express traveled by way of Interstate 5; the scenery was barely worth a glance. The train goes into a tunnel that bores through Beacon Hill and emerges at grade level in the Rainier Valley, transiting along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, everyday life filling the view from the rail car windows.

Since I am me, I tend to notice places that sell food, and the ride provides plenty to gawk at, starting with the Original Philly's cheese steak sandwich shop. Asian stores restaurants, particularly Vietnamese, dominate the first stop or two, then Mexican and increasingly Muslim. The word "halal" appears with more and more frequency as the train nears the southern end of Boeing Field and approaches Sea-Tac. Muslim Seattle is not homogenous. There are Asian Muslims (the Cham people of Southeast Asia), African Muslims (Somalis), and in relatively small numbers, some European Muslims from the former Yugoslavia.

Near the International Boulevard station, among bakeries, restaurants, and coffee shops catering to African immigrants, and under the airport flight path, is Dino's Grill, one of the most curious restaurants this side of the Adriatic Sea. Dino's is appended to a strip mall on Military Road South, sharing a beige, flat-roof building with the Nasrulaah halal grocery and the dental offices of Ken Song.

Inside the entrance is a well-used foosball table. Six tables and one aisle make up the dining room, where a television is tuned to a sort of Balkan version of MTV. Dino's Grill, named after one of the owner's children, is, as far as its Bosnian owner knows, the only restaurant of its kind in the area. To call it a Bosnian restaurant is perhaps an overstatement as Dino’s Grill serves just one dish, the Bosnian standard called cevapi.

Cevapi is basically grilled, ground beef, served with bread and various garnishes, but always onions and a variation of sour cream. Shops that serve it are all over a city like Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dino's serves cevapi two ways, as patties or tater-tot-sized nuggets. You can also order a salad on the side, a beer, or coffee. But the cevapi is pretty much all they do at Dino's, bringing to mind Saturday Night Live's rendition of the Billy Goat Tavern, which served just cheeseburgers, chips, and Pepsi.

"For Bosnians, it is like a hamburger," said owner Nedzad Vatrenjak. "It's like fast food in Bosnia, food you get on the street."

Cevapi (also called cevapcici) is simply seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic ,or onion, and held together with a little egg white. Dino's cevapi is served in typical fashion with pita-style flatbread, diced onions and a mixture of sour cream and cheese. The meat has a bite similar to sausage. The heated flatbread is hollow so it can be stuffed with the meat and garnishes. One order costs $10 and comes with 10 pieces.

The dish is the legacy of centuries of Ottoman rule. What is now Bosnia and Herzegovina was also once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire before it was incorporated into the former Yugoslavia.

Vatrenjak moved to Seattle because his wife had relatives here. His first restaurant was a sandwich shop near Pioneer Square, then a crepe shop in downtown Seattle. Both have since closed. He later opened a pancake house in Burien, and a place called Dino's Gyros, also in Burien, a Greek and Turkish style takeout joint that serves doner kebab, falafels, and gyros. But Dino's Grill is the only place he has ever attempted to serve Bosnian food.

His customer base is small, a few thousand residents of Bosnian origin, he estimated. He does not advertise. The restaurant has no website. Vatrenjak does not even bother with menus. Practically all his customers at the grill are regulars from Bosnia.

"All the people who come here," Vatrenjak said, "we know them."

If you go: Dino’s Grill, 14432 Military Road South in Tukwila, 206-518-5195, Tuesday through Sunday, noon-midnight; closed Monday.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.