Balkan Garden Bistro in Grapevine is soundtracked by the hiss of onions and peppers searing on cast iron plates.
The plates carry ćevapi, an essential dish of the Balkan region that consists of seasoned ground beef or lamb and warm fluffy flatbread called lepinja. Ćevapi, which is pronounced suh-vah-pee, traditionally doesn’t sizzle as it does at this Grapevine restaurant. Owners Elvis and Adelisa Ramovic say they wanted to serve a dish that presents Balkan cuisine in a way they hadn’t seen in North Texas, with a subtle nod to how fajitas land on tables all across the region they now call home.
“There’s nothing like this here,” Adelisa says. “The Balkan restaurants that are here, they’re not like a fine dining restaurant where you can dress up, sit down, and eat. [They’re] more of like a fast-food vibe.”
The Balkans account for a broad stretch of southeast Europe, encompassing the countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and parts of Slovenia. Elvis is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Adelisa from Croatia.
Both were born during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. In the early 2000s, Elvis was relocated with his family to Bedford and Adelisa to Fort Worth. They met as teens in 2011, got married in 2013, and now have three children together.
After high school, Elvis worked at the same trucking company as his father, mostly doing inventory and administrative work. He worked up to a management position but decided to start his own business in 2014, when he was 21.
In 2020, Elvis and Adelisa began working together. They initially wanted to open a wine and dessert bar but instead decided to open a restaurant that honored their culture.
“It just made sense for us,” Adelisa says. “We’re always searching for something no one else has ever done.”
Balkan Garden Bistro opened in February and has already attracted attention. The Serbian former Dallas Mavericks player Boban Marjanović stopped by the restaurant one recent Sunday before leaving for Houston, where he now plays for the Rockets. Elvis takes pride in playing traditional Balkan pop music while the restaurant is open. The décor, meticulously arranged by Adelisa, includes arches that resemble bridges found all over the Balkan region.
The bistro’s brunch and dinner menus include a variety of Balkan dishes, like meat burek, a savory pastry made with homemade filo dough filled with ground beef and onions. At the bistro it’s rolled into a spiral, baked, and topped with green onions. The bakery is filled with Balkan desserts like vasina torta, a cake made with chocolate, walnuts, and a light meringue. They also serve Turkish coffee and Cockta, a sweet Slovenian soda made with 11 different herbs.
But the true showstopper is the ćevapi. Ćevapi is typically served on a plate with lepinja, sausages made of beef or lamb, and sliced or chopped onions. On the side are spreads of kajmak, a Serbian clotted cream, and ajvar, a roasted red pepper dip. The lepinja is heated on top of the links while they’re cooking on a flat-top grill, which gives the bread a soft and chewy texture.
The dish is meant to be eaten with your hands, the couple says. The lepinja can be cut in half and stuffed like a pita, or it can be used to wrap a few links and onions fajita-style and dipped in one of the creamy sauces. At the bistro, customers have a choice of choosing 10 or 15 links for their plate. An order of 10 links was enough for two people.
The ćevapi puts on more of a show than you might find in southeast Europe, but Adelisa says the dish tastes exactly as if you were back in the Balkans. When they opened in February, Adelisa says almost every table ordered ćevapi.
“Balkan people, when they see it on the menu, they’re gonna order it,” Adelisa says. “They’ll come in and they’re like, ‘wow, this tastes like I’m back home.’”