It was February 15, 2003, the day of the largest global protest in history, with crowds of between ten and 30 million people worldwide demonstrating against the U.S.-driven war in Iraq. In Chicago, 3,000 people filled the Devon Avenue strip to oppose what Barack Obama, then a state senator, had termed “a dumb war . . . a rash war.” It was below freezing, with gusting winds that added to the chill, and after several hours of mostly standing around, I was as cold as I can remember ever being. Afterward, a couple of us made our way to Deta’s Pita & More, a tiny cafe in West Ridge, on the far-north side.
There Deta Lekic herself welcomed us, pouring me a strong coffee in a glass mug and, once I was warm enough to take off my coat, propelling me back into the little kitchen where—never mind the “more”—she made pretty much one thing only: Macedonian pita (aka burek or borek), flaky phyllo stuffed, coiled into a spiral, and baked until golden brown. Her dexterity with the fragile dough convinced me this was not a thing to be tried at home, at least not mine. But by then her hospitality had made the storefront seem like her own home.
In a way it was. Forced to leave Montenegro by the war that raged in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 90s, Lekic had tried to re-create a gathering place of the sort you might find in her native country, decorating with her own furnishings and serving only pita and whatever else she felt like making (though if you called ahead, you might be able to persuade her into fulfilling special requests). Her daughter, who worked for a bank here, had tried to convince her that this was no business model. But Deta prevailed, and over the years her cafe built up a following, championed in particular by LTHForum.com, which in 2009-’10 named Deta’s one of its Great Neighborhood Restaurants (“she’s an absolute virtuoso with cabbage,” wrote the LTHer who nominated the place).
Many years ago, before the civil war that wiped Yugoslavia off the map, I read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West’s 1,000-plus-page account of a journey she took through the country on the eve of World War II (sizable chunks of the work ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1941). Part travelogue, part history, with lots of sniping and biting sociopolitical commentary, it’s also a deeply personal work that makes the reader feel, as West did, that the world was hanging on the fate of the Balkans, and hurtling toward disaster blindly. The day I first visited Deta’s, I felt something akin to that, a leaden sense of dread and powerlessness in the face of dumb, rash, willful belligerence. Her own resilience and bustling good cheer comforted me more than her food.
Deta’s Cafe—grown to two rooms—was bought by new owners a couple of years ago, and Lekic now spends about half her time back in Montenegro. Some things remain constant, though: there’s still no menu to speak of, just pita (on one visit meat, cheese, potato, or that famous cabbage) and salad, with feta or without, your choice.