Balkan Express

Radovan Jacovic painted the portrait of grandfather Lazar that hangs above the restaurant kitchen. (Ron Cortes/Inquirer)

Thanks to Home Depot, the powerful aroma of Serbian smoked meat is lingering in my head.

I'm sure Radovan Jacovic would have preferred it otherwise. He never would have opened the Balkan Express Restaurant, after all, had the home store giant not chewed away so much business from his neighborly South Square Hardware that he had enough empty storage space to consider opening a 49-seat eatery.

And Jacovic is as good a hardwareman as one finds - unflaggingly friendly and helpful, whether dispensing tips on cat-proofing your flower beds or finding the right screw.

But Jacovic turns out to be a man of many worthy skills. He and his family owned restaurants in Germany for a few years after leaving the former Yugoslavia in 1982, so the food industry isn't completely foreign.

That the former contractor would be able to construct a handsome dining room with his own hands might not be a complete surprise, either. Granted, the security grate covering the windows of this brown stucco building lends the Balkan Express a somewhat grim facade. The mood inside, though, is considerably more pleasant, with dark wood floors, stained glass pendant lights, and peach-colored walls hung with highbrow French oils from Newman Galleries.

The most telling painting here is by Jacovic himself, and it hangs above the kitchen. It is a portrait of his grandfather, Lazar Jacovic, who peers down from beneath his rumpled, flat-topped shaykatcha hat with an intriguing gaze.

"He was a peasant who lived a rough life in the mountains," Jacovic says proudly.

But Grandpa Lazar also taught Radovan the secrets of smoking meat - the proper brines, the right cuts, and the patience to let the hardwoods smolder their penetrating cold smoke for days and days.

The smokehouse has remained for Jacovic a lifelong haven, curing bacon, sausages and hams in the backyard an indelible link to his youth just outside Belgrade. But this hobby is also the key to what makes the Balkan Express - still in many ways an awkward place - ultimately such an interesting and authentic restaurant.

It is most obvious in the antipasto of smoked meats, which brings, along with feta cheese and pickled mushrooms, a handful of sliced prsuta, chewy rounds of marbled beef and pork that are cured to a deep mahogany hue with such a profound six-day smoke that they reveal new layers of flavor with every bite.

But the smoked meat is just as powerful here as a background ingredient, adding a soulful tug to the Serbian white bean soup; melding its musky intrigue with the slow-cooked sweetness of kiseli kupus cabbage stew; even crowning the stellar stuffed cabbage known as sarma as it finishes in the oven.

The envelope of house-pickled cabbage was the sarma's other special charm - the salty tang of sauerkraut adding a brightness to the lightly spiced filling of meat and rice that the usual plain cabbage leaves don't offer. But cabbage is another of Jacovic's great talents, as evidenced by the fresh cabbage salad he shreds from the heads he grows in his garden from Serbian seeds. A pickled Hungarian hot pepper poses atop each plate of cabbage like a firecracker.

Jacovic, aided by his mother, Katica, and his chef, Stephan Thorn, formerly of Doc Watson's, obviously takes no shortcuts in re-creating the flavors of his homeland. But the Balkan Express remains in many ways an unfinished and often uncertain project.

The restaurant oddly transforms itself into a typical American luncheonette for breakfast and lunch. And while the reviving neighborhood around South Street and Grays Ferry Avenue should be grateful simply to have a place that knows how to make fluffy pancakes and a nice omelet (and with homemade Serbian sausage to boot!), I can't help but think Jacovic is shyly hedging his bets in case the Balkan theme doesn't appeal.

Still, the place is not nearly as compelling in its guise as a diner. Yet even in its more comfortable role as a worthy ethnic destination, the Balkan Express has some rough edges to polish. The burly, mustachioed Jacovic, rarely seen without his knit cap, is a charming host, along with his wife, Wendy. But the service is often painfully slow and haphazard. This can be particularly problematic when the restaurant occasionally reaches for one of its overly ambitious fixed-price menus to commemorate a special holiday.

One trusted colleague who spent years reporting from the Balkans declared the restaurant's seafood feast for the Eastern Orthodox New Year a multicourse fiasco, stumbling over clumsy pacing, tiny portions and tepid fish.

But the inland Serbs, she graciously notes, are far better known for their meats. (The coastal Croats, meanwhile, have a better handle on fish.) And the Balkan Express has more than redeemed itself with a host of other well-prepared and rarely found Slavic meat dishes.

The occasional special of cevapi is a must. These skinless little beef sausages, typical of Sarajevo, have a char-grilled gusto that pairs nicely with a side of raw onions. With the famed Serbian hamburger called the pljeskavica, the onions are minced and blended right into the big patty of finely ground beef and pork tinged with paprika. I also loved the hearty savor of the spicy beef and pepper stew known as muckalica. Even the Serbian version of cordon bleu - a breaded pork schnitzel stuffed with ham and cheese - was surprisingly tasty, its exterior delicately crisp and tender.

Jacovic promises to elaborate further on his vast schnitzel repertoire in future menus, which sounds like an appealing idea.

He might also consider using a method other than the microwave to reheat his mother's heartspun strudels and baklava. Too much love and tradition go into those confections - and this entirely unusual endeavor - to let it go soggy at dessert.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or Read his recent work at