In East Coast pizzerias, it is not uncommon to find diners pulling apart flaky bureks alongside their slices. The unique culinary pairing was brought over in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s by immigrants and later by ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo and Montenegro who took over restaurants owned by Italians and Italian Americans upon settling in America. The trend has been slow to catch on in Southern California, but friends and business partners Ervin Šabović and Adnan Silajdžić are introducing the East Coast culinary tradition to the region at Sofra Urbana in Fountain Valley. Set near the back corner of a shopping plaza anchored by an Aldi and sandwiched between a hair salon and a physical therapy office, Sofra Urbana offers Balkan delights and pizzas.
While burek and pizza may not seem to have much in common, the inclusion of both on a Bosnian-owned restaurant menu makes perfect sense, as Italian and Balkan foods have a long history of intermingling in Europe and both are oven-baked. And as luck would have it, bureks cook perfectly well in a standard American pizza oven.
Šabović grew up working in his family’s restaurants in Slovenia and Bosnia and left for Vienna during the Yugoslav Wars in the mid-1990s. He met his wife on a visit to California in 2008 and relocated to the U.S. permanently shortly after that. Šabović also met Silajdžić around the same time.
For over a decade, Silajdžić and many others in the small Balkan communities of Orange and Los Angeles counties tried to convince Šabović to sell his food on a larger scale after tasting ćevapi (beef sausages) that he prepared occasionally for friends or at a catering job.
At an Orange County Turkish festival a decade ago, Silajdžić and Šabović finally joined forces to serve the famed ćevapi to the public from a stall at the event. “Turkish people love our food because it is also their food,” says Šabović, referring to the 500-plus years of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. “We took their food like the Italians took pasta.” Following the community event and up until opening Sofra Urbana in 2017, Šabović continued making ćevapi and other Balkan foods from home while working in other restaurants.
The highlight of Sofra Urbana’s menu is the beloved pastry that Turkish people call börek and those from Bosnia and Herzegovina know as burek. Burek only refers to meat-filled pastries. Similar versions stuffed with cheese are called sirnica, while zeljanica includes both spinach and cheese. (The matter of nomenclature is so serious that during football matches in Bosnia, fans of one team will taunt the other by saying that they eat burek with cheese — an insult more severe than actual profanity.) For the sake of peace, all three versions are served here. At Sofra Urbana, a refreshing cucumber yogurt dip is served with the burek, sirnica, and zeljanica.
Explore the beefy Bosnian menu further with Šabović’s signature ćevapi. The caseless halal beef sausages come stuffed into freshly baked Bosnian bread called lepinje. While Balkans eat ćevapi with a lavish portion of raw onions, Šabović and Silajdžić always ask customers their preference before adding any. Kajmak (whipped cheese) and ajvar (thick red pepper sauce) are served alongside for diners to liberally apply to the sandwich. Similar flavors and toppings are found on the pljeskavica, a kind of oversized Bosnian smash burger.
Like any pizza parlor, cheese plays an important role at Sofra Urbana, and Šabović uses homemade kajmak on his Balkan Special pie. On the Sofra Urbana pizza, which was created in the shop, thin slices of Bosnian dried beef (suho meso), which Šabović refers to as “smoked beef prosciutto,” are draped over a fully baked mushroom and Buffalo mozzarella pizza. Fresh arugula and Parmesan shards are finishing touches.
Šabović is especially proud to serve suho meso as his hometown of Visoko, about 19 miles northwest of Sarajevo, is well-known in Bosnia and throughout Europe for its cattle byproducts.
Bosnian coffee served in a traditional metal set provides an excellent finish. The thick, muddy java is similar to Turkish coffee and is another remnant of the Ottoman Empire. A few sugar cubes sweeten the strong drink, making a fine accompaniment to chewy rahat lokum (Turkish delight).
Though Šabović and Silajdžić hoped to expand to more locations beyond the original at 17098 Magnolia Street in Fountain Valley prior to the pandemic, these plans to offer Sofra Urbana’s bestsellers on a wider scale, along with rare and refined Balkan foods, are on the back burner for now. But just as Šabović was discussing what may come in the future, a group of three Bosnians walked into the restaurant and placed an order for ćevapi. At that moment, it was hard not to notice the wry smile passing over his face.
Sofra Urbana is open daily at 17098 Magnolia Street, Fountain Valley, CA 92708, keeping hours from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., with an extension to 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.