This is the only guidance needed to visit the brick-and-mortar location of the acclaimed food truck Balkan Treat Box. Since Loryn and Edo Nalic opened the Webster Groves storefront in February, each service is a race between an ostensible 3 p.m. closing and diners intent on devouring every last bite of pide, cevapi and lahmacun before then.
Loryn Nalic didn’t expect these crowds. “We had our food-truck followers, but we didn’t realize it was going to be as well received as it (has been),” she told me in a phone interview.
Well received is an understatement. The Balkan Treat Box buzz has been building for more than two years now. Local food media, myself included, have been effusive. In 2018, Food & Wine magazine named the truck’s pide one of its best bites of the year nationwide.
This Turkish-style flatbread — imagine a Neapolitan pizza stretched into the shape of a football — seems destined to become an iconic St. Louis dish. The crust, speckled with char from the wood-fired oven and basted with browned butter, I would happily eat by itself. Nalic tops this with a blend of piknik and mozzarella cheeses and your choice of beef or chicken. (A vegetable of the day and Impossible-brand faux meat are also available.) She finishes it with dollops of creamy kajmak, the tangy red-pepper spread ajvar and a shower of fresh herbs.
If you have ever tracked down the Balkan Treat Box truck and risked wardrobe catastrophe balancing the pide in its too-small paper tray on your lap while sitting on a bench, in your car or even on the ground, you expected these crowds at the brick-and-mortar location.
The Nalics introduced Balkan Street Box in late 2016. The truck featured a memorable name, a wood-fired oven, somun made from scratch daily and a meet-cute origin story. The couple, married since 2007, met at the Bevo Mill Bosnian restaurant Taft Street Restaurant & Bar. At the time, Loryn worked for a food-service company. Edo, a native of Bosnia, worked for the restaurant.
Loryn made a sale to the restaurant. She fell in love with Edo — and with his culture. In 2013, she went to Sarajevo to meet his family and then traveled through Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Turkey. The dishes at the core of Balkan Treat Box’s menu, she told me, are the foods Edo grew up with and misses.
A copper map of the Balkans decorates one wall of the new restaurant. Another wall features a rainbow mosaic of wood blocks. Behind the counter where you place your order, Loryn tends the wood-fired oven while her staff hustles in the open kitchen. The vibe is simultaneously modern and homey.
(If you were wondering, the truck has been parked as the Nalics get the restaurant up and running and will remain sidelined until they can hire staff to operate it.)
So: Go early. If you have never visited the truck, let alone the Webster Groves storefront, you might start with the dishes that have already won acclaim. The pide ($14), of course. Cevapi ($11) are nestled with onion and kajmak inside somun, each slender beef sausage crackling with grill char and juicy and tender through its core. The doner kebab ($12) barely contains perfectly browned spit-roasted chicken and its dressing of lettuce, tomato, onion, cabbage, feta and the vital BTB sauce (yogurt with Aleppo, Urfa, and cayenne peppers and paprika) inside somun.
If pide is Balkan Treat Box’s showstopper, the somun is its soul. Nalic and her team make the Bosnian flatbread from scratch daily, mixing the dough with a sourdough starter and baking the loaves in the wood-fired hearth. The bread is a contradiction. It feels as ephemeral as cotton candy in your hand, but it is sturdy enough not only to support the cevapi or the doner kebab but also to soak up all the flavors.
The somun is the base for most of the dishes new to the restaurant’s expanded menu. (Most have run as specials on the truck.) For the balik ekmek ($14), it cradles a piece of simply grilled fish with tart notes of lemon and sumac and the subtle heat of the BTB sauce ($14). The patlidzan ($12) stuffs the somun with grilled eggplant and a bevy of garnishes, hard-boiled egg and pickles most notable among them. The key accent, though, is an apricot-pomegranate molasses. It draws out the eggplant’s cooked sweetness against the sandwich’s many competing flavors.
Could the pljeskavica ($12) rival the pide as Balkan Treat Box’s blockbuster? The “Balkan burger” is impressive even before you reach the melted mozzarella-piknik blend stuffed in its center. The base is a proprietary ground-beef blend developed for the restaurant by Kern Meat Co. and used for the pide and lahmacun as well. Nalic compares the blend to sausage, and its higher-than-usual fat content makes for an exceptionally luscious patty even before you consider its toppings of kajmak and ajvar and, eventually, the cheese at its center.
But I suspect the lahmacun ($12) will be Balkan Treat Box’s next smash. This begins with a very thin piece of flatbread that Nalic tops with spicy minced beef and garnishes with lemon juice and zest, onion, parsley, sumac and the BTB sauce. She bakes this in the wood-fired oven and then folds it into a vaguely burrito- or jianbing-esque shape for alternating layers of crisp crust and soft toppings.
The intensity of the beef’s spicing and the bright accents of its garnishes convinced me there must be some lamb mixed into the lahmacun. There isn’t. Here, peeking through the bustle of Balkan Treat Box’s relatively quick operation, is another example of Nalic’s talent as she coaxes a strikingly different flavor and texture from the restaurant’s beef blend.
And that, with the addition of a salad and a single lovely dessert of rice pudding with rose and pistachio (sutlija, $3), is the extent of Balkan Treat Box’s menu. Keeping up with the demand for these dishes in the restaurant’s first three months has kept Nalic from offering more specials, salads and desserts.
“Edo and I have so many more things we want to do,” she told me.
This is as exciting as the opening of the Balkan Treat Box storefront itself. We are still visiting during the early chapters of the Nalics’ story. One of St. Louis’ next great, essential restaurants is only beginning to establish itself.
Where Balkan Treat Box, 8103 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves • Three stars out of four • More info 314-733-5700; balkantreatbox.com • Menu Bosnian, Turkish and other Balkan-inspired fare • Hours 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (or until sold out) Wednesday-Sunday