The only way to measure a great burger is in terms of distance: how far would you travel for a taste? I journeyed halfway around the world to accidently stumble upon some of the greatest burgers I’ve ever eaten, and I’d probably make the trip again.
I ate my first burger in Belgrade mostly out of curiosity. The sheer number of burgers in the Serbian capital was kind of shocking—you can’t throw a Guy Fieri without hitting a burger joint or fast-food kiosk, a term that has a different meaning in Serbia than in the U.S. The only similarities between fast food in Serbia and the U.S. is that in both places you get your food quickly, but in Serbia, your food is, well, real. And it’s freshly made to order.
Differences between the American burger and its Serban counterpart, the pljeskavica, equal the similarities. Grilled meat patty placed between two halves of a bun is about where the similarities end. The pljeskavica packs way more flavor than its American relative, which is not to say that it's necessarily better, just different — similar to the difference between the bolder, more intense Chicago-style pizza and a cleaner, simpler New York style pie.
A pljesakvica can be made with any combination of beef, veal, pork and lamb, mixed with chopped onions, garlic and a variety of spices including paprika and salt, and sandwiched between two halves of a spongy, pillowy pita called lepinja. It is then topped with a choice of toppings from a condiment bar so extensive, fresh and exotic that it seems more fit for a falafel restaurant than a burger joint.
The pljeskavica gets its name from the word pljesak, which means “to clap hands.” And when I walked into Sur Mara for my first pljesakvica, the woman in the kitchen made sense of the term. The patty made a resounding “thwack” each time she slapped it. By the time it was taken off the grill, the burger seemed nearly big enough to make an appearance on Man vs. Food — in terms of size, Serbia had out America-d America.
It was also perfectly spiced, incredibly juicy and generously topped with cabbage, mustard and kajmak (rich, creamy, clotted cream — basically, what cream cheese wishes it could be). The burgers I sampled throughout the city differed slightly, each made with a mixture of meats and spices, but they were invariably delicious.
The Leskovacka pljeskavica — a spicy pork and beef patty — topped with urnebes (a mixture of soft cheese, chilies and spices) at Poncho was worth the early morning wait as drunken revelers lined up at the tiny kiosk to satisfy their munchies. But the most revered burger in the city might be from Loki, which makes — among its classic pljeskavica and other grilled items — a gurmanska pljeskavica, a beef burger with cheese and cubes of bacon mixed into the patty before being grilled.
Belgrade’s knack for making burgers really should not have been much of a surprise. Serbia, and most of the rest of the Balkan region, is not known for having the world’s richest culinary traditions: Give its chefs a selection of produce and they will probably be as lost as an Irish wine producer, but give its chefs ground meat and they're like artists.
In a way, the pljeskavica is the descendant of the American burger, but in reality its origins go back centuries. Serbian burgers are nothing more than a slight American spin on cevapi, the ubiquitous log-shaped minced meat served throughout the Balkans, often on top of, or stuffed into, lepinja. Instead, the same minced meat is pounded flat and stuffed between two halves of the same bread. The result is good enough to warrant a journey to the Balkans.
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