All day long at the Petro truck stop in Gary, Indiana, drivers pull in, dismount from their cabs, and saunter lazily across the long blacktop toward a grassy patch next to the parking lot entrance. Muttering into Bluetooth earpieces, they approach the steps of a raised semitrailer painted bright yellow, announcing itself to the parking lot with the words “Balkan Grill Restaurant.” Inside, a stark cargo area contains a few high-top tables, a drink cooler filled with bottled water and the Slovenian soft drink Cockta, and a window that separates customers from the kitchen, the register, and Momocilo “Momo” Bogdanovich.
Bogdanovich is the cashier, owner, and cook of the three-year-old establishment, which serves some of the freshest, hottest, heartiest Serbian food in the midwest. When he came to the U.S. ten years ago, Bogdanovich, who has a degree in economics from the University of Belgrade, found work as a long-haul truck driver. That’s how he learned the rare pleasure of a homestyle meal after many days behind the wheel. “All the time when I was on the road, the food looked bad,” he says. “Truck-stop food is not good.”
Back in Serbia, Bogdanovich’s family is in the restaurant business. “Ever since I was a little kid I was in the kitchen learning cooking,” he says. So he knew what he was getting into when he purchased the vacated trailer. Things got busy fast, which is why he never bothered to paint over a holdover from the former establishment: “family run business since 2001.”
One bright September afternoon, “Chris,” from Bulgaria, was taking lunch at one of Balkan Grill’s picnic tables set out in the grass before rolling on through Indiana to pick up one of the broken-down trucks from his own fleet. “A lot of immigrants from the Balkans get into this business of trucking because without knowing much of the language or without any education you don’t have much other opportunity to make a decent living,” Chris said. “Truck driving is one of the ways to make money.”
I wanted to hear more about how he started and grew his business, but I could tell he and his driver wanted to get back to their pljeskavica, Serbia’s gift to the burger arts. It’s usually built with a char-grilled beef patty the size of something you could wind up and throw for Olympic gold, tucked in the pocket of a warm, pillowy flatbread called lepinja, which looks something like a pita on growth hormone. It’s served with a fresh, crunchy coleslaw (kupus salata), a chile-tinged orange feta goat cheese spread (urnebes), and a white gob of kajmak, a lighter, buttery white cheese spread. If you’ve any sense at all, you smear the cheeses on your patty, pile it with cabbage and onions, and go to town.
An important variation of the pljeskavica is also available at Balkan Grill. Stuffed with ham and mozzarella, the gurmanska (a fierce-sounding way to say “gourmet”) is Serbia’s answer to the Juicy Lucy. If you’re at the Petro because you need to clock your federally mandated off-duty hours, this thing will put you right to sleep. If you still have to drive, say, eight or nine more, it’ll get you where you’re going.
All of Bogdanovich’s food bestows the same nutritive powers on people who truly are in need of it. Here, with an order of sizzling beef cevapcici or long, snappy, salty lengths of tubular house-made pork rostiljske kobasice, you will get, at the very least, a day’s recommended dose of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Same goes for grilled pork chops and kebabs, chicken thighs and breasts, and garlicky sliderlike beef patties called ustipak, molded with ham, cheese, and hot peppers.
One can also order a mixed-grilled sampler platter, more than enough to last you through the long haul, for $11.99, which is one dollar more than the most expensive item on the menu (the gurmanska), excepting the Balkan Special Plate, which offers four pounds of meat for $40.99.
With this lineup, Balkan Grill could credibly be called a sandwich shop, but that would fail to properly represent the muckalica, a goulashlike stew, potent with paprika and radiant as a taillight, abundant with sliced sweet red and green peppers and juicy pork loin that falls apart to the touch. Two soups are equally fortifying: veal (teleca corba), and white bean, thick and orange as lava, with a single rostiljske kobasice rising from its depths.
When he opened, Bogdanovich had identified an ideal patch of real estate to park his kitchen, just south of the I-80/94 off-ramp and six miles from where I-90 and I-65 converge. There’s a Love’s truck stop competing with Petro right across Grant Street. Five days a week from 10 AM to 10 PM, drivers arriving from points all across the map amble over from Love’s or neighboring Champ’s Liquors swinging plastic bags in their hands. These guys know they can skip the Taco Bell, the Denny’s, and the Iron Skillet all squeezed inside Petro, and instead fuel up on the food they were raised on. v