In my apartment in London where I lived before coming to Belgrade there was an air vent that was positioned in front of the exhaust pipes of a Lebanese restaurant grill. Every meal time it would blow the charcoal grill or žar smoke right into my flat and if I was especially lucky, the stink of the Arab Oud perfume would waft along gently with it, choking me lightly and poisoning me ever so slowly. My internal politics began to inexplicably become more and more pro Israel with every passing week.
Late on Fridays and Saturdays when the English club and bar going vomit herds would make their weekly pilgrimages to inebriation; that heady, repulsive aroma would be mixed with fat white girl sweat, Axe peasant deodorant, vinegar and greasy chip fat. When the bars and clubs emptied at 3am, the time when London says: ‘We’re closed, go home’, the pill popping, Adele loving crowds pour into every Middle-Eastern kebab shop in town to have a Kofta, or a Gyros, a ChauvanistBurger, or a Clitorectamy salad.
Every Belgrade foreign residents favourite memories are the first weeks spent here riding in wild taxis late at night zooming from party to party, while randoms latched onto the ‘stranac’ and the locals were eager to show you how much fun it was to live here. Every one of those nights ended up at the pljeskavica stand at 4.00am, drunk as fuck on grandpa’s home-made bathtub moonshine, asking for luk and kupus on a giant, bready sandwich, the bread stone cold and the meat super hot, while everybody stood around debating which was the best Pljeka in town.
Years on, and in one’s snobby mid-thirties the mere thought of eating at any pljeka stand in town ranks up there in terms of bad ideas as terrible as barebacking with Soraja.
Dirty, fun, and god knows where it’s been. The smell of the pljeka stand is unique… I am well acquainted with every conceivable type of grilled minced meat; Greek, Moroccan, North and South American, Pan European and Pan Asian… but I have never been able to replicate that pljeka flavour. No internet recipe nor Baba secrets can recreate that specific flavour you get at the stand. What is it? What is it that they do to their pljekas, what IS that secret ingredient? I have discovered it. RAT MEAT. Mixed with a little PIGEON MEAT, and tossed carefully with one quarter chopped onion, minced garlic, and garbage man ball sweat.
Much like my apartment in London, my place in Belgrade looks out onto a 24 hour roštilj. I have observed the place, day and night, and not even once seen a delivery of meat to the establishment. The Belgrade roštilj meat delivery sources are a complete mystery, conspiracy even. Pigeons are a problem on every public square in all the world. On Trafalgar Square, Times Square, etc. there are literally thousands of pigeons colluding, cooing, collecting and shitting all over everything in sight. On Trg Republike? They’re as endangered as the White Rhino. No Pigeons on the street… No visible meat deliveries to the pljeka stands. Hmmm…
The passage of time has led to my penchant for late night munchies to abate, somewhat. A newer culinary trend has emerged, one for which I am overjoyed. The Western style burger has invaded Belgrade and been taken up for with much enthusiasm by the populace, with hotspots springing up regularly. It is hard to shake the easy availability and cheapness of the pigeon-meat mafia, so some establishments are still relying on that to maximize their profits. Others, however, are putting stellar effort into creating as rounded a burger experience as possible and using almost no pigeon meat whatsoever. As controversial as it might seem, I will use the space I have left to award the appropriate spot of first place trophy to the current number one burger joint in town. I spent a week eating my way through entire cow farm and no doubt a few pigeons too, and have arrived at the following conclusion. Points are awarded to each burger vendor for quality, surroundings, and pigeon meat content. Inadequacies can be hidden with condiments and additions like bacon or special sauces; like judging a pizza restaurant by ordering only the plainest, purest margherita, the burgers on the chopping block here are the simple, naked classics.
BG Burger Bar
This was promising when it first opened. Occupying a killer location right across from Palata Albania, no doubt their foot traffic customer numbers are at least 80% of their business. Stepping inside, you are immediately drenched in burger smoke; if I had any hair it would reek of burned flesh for several washes. The kitchen is completely open, cleanliness standards are weak at best. At least they use gloves to shove the patties into greasy, charred mini ovens. The buns are seeded, the salad limp, the ratios all wrong, and the meat has a faint, rotten aroma that no amount of budget mayo will cover up.
Quality: Hit and miss. 4/10
Surroundings: Tiny, cramped, stinking. 2/10
Pigeon meat content: 24%
The ‘restaurant’ that serves the highest number of burgers per day in Serbia by far, the very first Western burger joint in the country, and if I’m not mistaken the first Western import whatsoever, deserves a place on the list. I’ve often contended that McDonalds is the most consistent eatery in town. How many places here change their chef every three months, and things are never the same as they were the last time you were there? With McDonalds, life is very much NOT a box of chocolates… you always know what you’re gonna get. The closest thing on the menu to a ‘non’ mac hamburger is the Big Tasty, which is a thoroughly satisfying, plastic fantastic experience. Incidentally, the same price as a Burger House equivalent meal; only there they serve theirs without the CIA mind control chemicals. The Serbian Mickey D’s is also the best in the world. The genius’ who worked at creating this mega-chain, to paraphrase the Serbian expression, really did figure out a way to make pie out of shit.
Quality: Really? 1/10
Surroundings: Get ya in, get ya out. 1/10
Pigeon meat content: 100%
The only ‘fancy’ place I’m going to include on this list, just because it promises so much and delivers so little. They serve this burger the way it should be, cheese and bacon optional but a standard classic. The minced meat is too tightly packed, and therefore resembles and tastes like a hockey puck. Overly salted and yet still bland, the patty is tough and unappealing. The fries they brought me were cold. The bun is straight from the fridge, and the salad was completely without sourcing. The most expensive burger on the list by 200%, and with the largest margin of disappointment. Both restaurants at this hotel have so full a litany of disasters I’m going to save it for another review, where I can fully sink my teeth into it, so to speak.
Quality: Who cares. 6/10
Surroundings: Uspešni Gastarbajteri. 7/10
Pigeon meat content: ??%
Everybody’s favourite. The spot every supposed knowledgeable burger eater suggests as the top spot for a burger in Belgrade. This place does a lot of things very right. Restaurants of BG take note! FRESH potato fries. A bowl of fucking potatoes, an automatic potato chip cutter, and hey presto! No more frozen, soggy, disgusting chips. Diagonala restaurant in Vračar is a perfect example. An article in AirSerbia magazine wrote about their potential for a Michelin star?? Nothing made me spurt my airplane tomato juice through my nostrils faster. Order a 15e burger at Diagonala and you will be served frozen, flavourless, undercooked french fries.
Burger House can make fresh chips, and so can they. When the Michelin committee used to visit my restaurant in Athens they would require a list of the approved farms where we sourced our potatoes. I’m sure they would love to know from which freezer aisle of Tempo Diagonala sourced theirs. I digress.
At Burger House they offer a half onion rings, half fresh chips option with your burger. This is excellent. The burger itself… Served on paper, high fat content, fresh, sweet bun, crispy salad, hot and juicy. In the summer, the tables outside offer up a lovely eating experience, in a first rate central location, despite the endless line of beggars. Apparently there is a little room in the back where there are extra tables, but I’ve never been a fan of going up the backdoor.
However, a little knowledge of how burger meat is cleverly disguised as 100% beef… The cheapest possible cuts of beef are ground into mince meat, and that includes the lips, spine, assholes, and joints of a cow. In order to maximize your profits you use this ‘fodder’ meat to pad out the normal minced meat and increase your volume. There are no pigeons in this meat, but it is far from the highest quality burger meat you’ll ever have. It’s a very good effort, and only minimal profiteering engaged. Enough, however, for me to notice.
Quality: Almost there. 8/10
Surroundings: Only good in summer. 6/10
Pigeon meat content: 0%
Submarine in the fine tradition of gentrification occupies a prime spot on Kralja Petra, has gramophones as wall decorations and a downbeat vapourwave soundtrack accompanying its open kitchen flame grilled patties. FLAME grilled… This is only spot on the list that bothered to invest in a charcoal griller, not a hotplate. The fries are also from fresh potatoes, salad fresh and crispy. The buns are fresh and they offer three different types, not traditional but very welcome. The emphasis in Submarine is on quality. It’s greasy and meaty in the good way… like Kate Upton. The meat has not a trace of pigeon or fodder, and the ratios are spot on. The booths are comfortable, the menu on point with its ritzier varieties, and the basic classic is without failing. The misers and penny pinchers among you will balk, horrified at the fact this place actually charges money for ketchup, which frankly boggles the mind in a country where nothing is given away for free, EXCEPT ketchup even in the dankest pizza kiosks.
Quality: The only asshole here was the reviewer. 9/10
Surroundings: SoDo SoPa 8/10
Pigeon meat content: 0%
WINNER: Submarine BBQ. For now, Submarine takes the top spot for the best burger experience in town.
I scoured the place in every nook and cranny, and there was not a single dead pigeon anywhere to found on the well appointed premises.
I had a Serbian guy explain to me that all hamburgers are ‘sranje’ and that ‘only pljeskavica is good’. The same person then informed me that ‘cipiripi’ is the best chocolate in the world, and everything else is also ‘sranje’. Sometimes the extreme conviction that this type of Serb has in his opinions is genuinely charming. He marched me to a kiosk, bought me a cipiripi ‘chocolate’ and forced it into my mouth. I think that if it was possible to synthesise a pure, distilled version of edible communism into a morsel of food then a cipiripi, retarded squirrel chocolate would be exactly that flavour. Replace the squirrel with a portrait of Lenin and it’s a complete product. Of course I pretended not to choke on the misery of a 1% cocoa imitation Stakhanovite sweet and smiled through my pain. He beamed back at me in total conviction of himself and his country’s greatness. For this man, there will only ever be pljeskavica; for everyone else, there’s Submarine.