Back before the Thai conquest of Chicago’s palate, when we went out for an “ethnic” dining experience it was likely to be a cuisine from the Balkan triumvirate–Hungary, Romania, or Yugoslavia (usually Serbian, sometimes Croatian). We never considered French or Italian to be ethnic; there was some special romance to eastern and central European food.

But these exotic, modestly priced little restaurants fell out of fashion. Once they flourished in Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview–to say nothing of the southeast side–but today they are our forgotten foods. Even Chicago magazine’s vaunted listings show none of the above.

One obvious reason for their decline is a reliance on red meats in this time of pastas and sea fare; another is the view that they’re “heavy,” meaning richly sauced and cholesterol laden. Guilty, in many cases, but there are many light items and seafood in the repertoire. Another reason may be politics–but what the hell, we still eat a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese food.

Much remains to be said for these neglected cuisines of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. They’re highly flavorful, with a complex blending of ingredients, redolent of garlic, onions, paprika, and both sweet and hot peppers. An added attraction is that many of the restaurants offer live ethnic music and sometimes dancing.

Take my favorite Serbian spot, Skadarlija (4024 N. Kedzie, 463-5600), named for a famous artists’ haunt in Belgrade. While the parade of goodies is on its way to your table, your host, Zvonko Klancnik, is up on the bandstand wailing away on keyboards or accordion and a vocalist is pouring out her heart in a perpetually melancholy plaint. To do it right here, open with a platter of cold cuts: sausage, salami, smoked pork slices, a fetalike Bulgarian cheese, the savory puree of green and red peppers called ajvar, and kajmak, a tangy mix of creamed cheeses ($10.95). It feeds at least four.

Serbians are big on grilled meats–great skewered chunks of pork tenderloin ($12.95) or my all-time favorite, cevapcici, a lushly seasoned blend of minced beef and veal rolled into the shape of breakfast links ($10.95). You may decide to go all the way and have the Gypsy Plate–said to be for two but almost enough for four–which includes the above items plus spicy sausages and a couple of unforgettable patties involving a mix of either veal and beef or pork and beef–the latter has a light peppery zing ($31.95). Showing their link to Austria, they do a fine Wiener schnitzel here as well ($14.95) and a unique veal steak rolled around smoked pork and white cheese ($15.95). A couple of fish dishes are always on hand.

In the interest of political evenhandedness, I also note there’s a good Croatian spot called Cafe Continental (5515 N. Lincoln, 878-7077), where the midweek musical attraction is the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band. The Croatian Platter, at $10.95 per person, contains offerings similar to Skadarlija’s Gypsy Plate, but the subtle differences in flavor here come from minced lamb worked into the cevapcici and the patties.

I originally intended to write about a wonderful little Hungarian spot called Kenessey’s Wine Cellar in the old Belmont Hotel, but Ivan Kenessey recently closed the place. It was possibly the last Hungarian restaurant in Chicago, though fear not: Ivan still holds forth in his palatial Kenessey’s Cypress in not-too-distant Hinsdale (500 E. Ogden, 708-323-2727). This vast complex has a wine shop, gourmet food store, cocktail lounge, and not one but two restaurants.

Alone among the Balkan nations, Hungary has a long-standing haute cuisine tradition, exemplified by Kenessey’s fine-dining section. At a recent visit we encountered a plush rendition of veal paprikash, tender morsels of the meat awash in a pale pink sauce based on sour cream and sweet paprika ($14.95). The giant Wiener schnitzel was even better–damn near perfect–with a crisp cloak of breading encasing tender, white, succulent meat. A daily special was a juicy pork loin topped with letcho, a traditional blend of sauteed peppers, onion, and tomato with nuggets of Hungarian sausage in the mix ($16.95). Letcho is one of those all-purpose dishes, appropriate as a condiment, a meal in itself, or with scrambled eggs stirred in for breakfast.

The preamble to these winners was an earthy, full-bodied, pureed bean soup with smoked sausage ($3.95). The only disappointment in this handsome, old-world dining room was a too-dry half duck with green peppercorn sauce ($17.95). The balance of the menu is in a French-continental mode with a spectacular dessert cart of homemade tortes and tarts.

All Balkan food is influenced by the cross-currents of Turkey on the east and Austria on the west; these two nations ruled the Balkans at various points in history, prior to the descent of the Iron Curtain. Romanian food, by proximity, shows more of the Turkish touch, particularly with a lot of eggplant dishes and stuffed vegetables.

You can get a fine array of Romanian cuisine at Little Bucharest (3001 N. Ashland, 929-8640), which has had its ups and downs through the years but now is on a decided upswing with chef Verica Podrumedic, who’s even created some vegetarian dishes. Our recent party of revelers opened festivities with mititei, a garlic-and-paprika-laced skinless sausage–similar to cevapcici–made of minced pork and beef ($4.95). We also had a soothing mamaliga, a satiny polenta topped with shavings of feta cheese and sour cream ($3.95), plus a tangy eggplant salad ($4.35). Lovely veal strips were wrapped around pickles, olives, sweet peppers, and mushrooms in a tasty wine sauce ($11.75). We had interestingly seasoned stuffed cabbages, green peppers, and eggplants with zesty ground-beef fillings ($9.95 each), then their new vegetarian counterparts, with grains replacing the meat ($8.75). They also load you down with platters of veggies–green beans, carrots, potatoes–as well as spaetzle, the dumplinglike pasta. There’s frequently live music here during dinner.

For one-stop Balkan dining, you can try the Simplon Orient Express (4520 N. Lincoln, 275-5522). It’s a Serbian restaurant that also features reasonable renditions of dishes from Hungary and Romania, as well as a sampling of Turkish, Austrian, Greek, Swiss, and Bulgarian items: stops at every country on the great old train line for which the restaurant is named. They have an especially good Bulgarian natur schnitzel ($12.95) and fine cevapcici ($8.95).

It’s good to remember these foods again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.