Astoria Café is home to some heroic buns | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Astoria Café is home to some heroic buns 

Irving Park's Serbian bakery has savory pastries of epic proportions, and much more.

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click to enlarge Pasulj (pinto bean soup) with bread; the Serbian Village crepe with pršuta

Pasulj (pinto bean soup) with bread; the Serbian Village crepe with pršuta

Jamie Ramsay

Even by Serbian standards the komplet lepinja at Irving Park's Astoria Café & Bakery is a breakfast of epic proportions. But is it a pizza? Is it a pastry? Is it a sandwich?

Its name means essentially (and somewhat unhelpfully) "a bun with everything in it." But more specifically, it's an enormous toasty Serbian bread bowl filled with a thick, bubbling scramble of egg, roast pork drippings, and kaymak, the tangy Balkan clotted cream that behaves like a seductive butter. At Astoria, after a brief spell in a blazing pizza oven, the komplet lepinja is removed and its crater and the top crust that once covered it are showered with pulled pork. Fanned off to the side are six slices of the prosciutto-like cured-and-smoked pork loin called pršuta, because without it this colossus simply doesn't have enough protein, carbohydrates, and fat to fuel your grueling day.

I've been studying photos of the komplet lepinja in its natural habitat, the western Serbian city of Užice in the mountainous Zlatibor District, and even those seem somewhat stingy in comparison.

Astoria's heroic komplet lepinja is the work of Snjezana "Suzi" Jeftenic, a 55-year-old former mechanical engineer who with her husband, Zoran, both Detroit autoworkers, lost everything after their jobs moved to Mexico in 2012. Along with their daughter Tanja, they picked up, moved to Chicago, and started living in their UHaul, parked on Irving Park Road, while they looked for work. Snjezana quickly found it in the kitchen at now 34-year-old Cafe Beograd, baking burek, filled pastries, plus sweet pastries and fresh lepinja, which is most commonly used as the vehicle for grilled meats.

This wasn't her first turn at a bakery. When the family arrived in Michigan in 1999, via Germany, Suzi and Tanja both found work at a bakery owned by a Serbian woman. After the woman died Tanja would eventually purchase it. But she says the real chef is her mother, who was cooking and baking long before they fled the war in the former Yugoslavia in 1992.

Last November mother and daughter opened Astoria in a pizzeria across the street from her former employers. She wanted to serve something that would distinguish the place from Cafe Beograd, and settled on the komplet lepinja, which was made famous decades ago by Užice baker Dragan Lazić at Suljaga, a bakery now owned by his son of the same name.

Traditionally, pretop, the drippings, are leftover from the previous night's whole roast lamb or pig roast. Suzy roasts her own pork for the purpose each morning, and rather than waste the meat gives her komplet lepinja an extra dose of protein. The correct method of attack for this monster is to tear at the upper crust and dip it into the egg, dairy, and pork slurry—though it's prudent to work on the sublime crusty edges before things get too messy.

There are other wonders at Astoria: buttery, flaky burek come coiled in spirals filled with feta cheese, spinach, or potato or specialty variants such as raspberry jam and Nutella. The Chicago deep-dish burek, with mozzarella, olives, ham, mushrooms, and tomato sauce, is nearly as monumental as the komplet lepinja.

Portions across Astoria's menu are generous. A gibanica is another large pastry that only looks daunting, buttery phyllo dough filled with a souffleelike suspension of eggs, feta, and ricotta. Mantije, pastry-wrapped orbs of ground meat and onions served with garlicky sour cream sauce, remind itinerant chef Alan Lake, who introduced me to Astoria, of his bubbe's knishes.

An arsenal of sweet and savory crepes that cover the plate come packed with fillings like Nutella, hazelnut, and crushed cookies or the Serbian Village—pršuta with kaymak and roasted red peppers. On weekends there's przenice, thick slices of fresh bread soaked in egg and milk, fried till golden, and served with slices of ham and feta, a savory Serbian response to French toast.

A few things not so carb dominant are well worth working on. A large bowl of sarma, beef-and-rice-stuffed cabbage rolls, seasoned with black pepper and Vegeta, the highly umamic Croatian seasoning blend, come adorned with braised carrots and chunks of smoked pork rib. The ribs also lurk in a thick bowl of the pinto bean soup called pasulj.

But Astoria Café—named for the Queens neighborhood home to many Serbs—is primarily a bakery, and its display case is filled with delicate, gently sweet pastries and cookies like moskva śnit, a cherry-pineapple-peach torte studded with sliced almonds; breskvice ("little peaches"), cookies the shape and color of the fruit, filled with apricot jam, crushed cookies, and walnuts; or knedle, plum-stuffed potato dumplings rolled in crunchy panko.

Any of these—including the sturdy feta-filled crescent rolls kiflitse—are ideal accompaniments to strong cups of Serbian ("not Turkish," Tanja jokes) coffee. Displayed on the walls are various iterations of slava kolac, ornately sculpted loaves made for families celebrating their patron saints and blessed by priests before consumption.

The place is snug but bright and welcoming, adorned with photos of Tanja and various celebrities from her days as a party promoter, among them pop-folk singers Lepa Brena and Saša Matić—and the Backstreet Boys.

There's another of her sitting down at a table with recording artist Željko Vasić and his band, who stopped by the cafe specifically for komplet lepijna while on tour, but instead ended up with an epic feast.  v

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