Jennie'sCafe Express,

Bosnian Survivor 

Jennie’s finds a safe home in Kansas City, Kansas.

Despite recent appearances, it's only an illusion that a new restaurant opens in Kansas City every seven days. Two new places opened just last week on the Country Club Plaza -- James Taylor's trendy re:Verse at 618 Ward Parkway and the new Buca di Beppo at 310 West 47th Street. And the long-awaited Provençal bistro, Aixois, opens its doors at 55th and Oak this week.

With so much hype over the new joints, it's easy to forget less glamorous places that have been around longer than the KCMO tower, the Midland Theatre or Walt Bodine -- joints like Jennie's. In various incarnations, the storefront restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas, has been serving Croatian and Bosnian food since the '20s. The cozy little place on the edge of Strawberry Hill began as George and Mary Kvaternik's Restaurant and Furnished Rooms back when food and lodging were hot commodities for the Croatian, Slovakian, Bosnian and Serbian immigrants moving into the working-class neighborhood.

The Kvaterniks later dubbed their one-room Croatian diner The National Cafe; it didn't become Jennie's until after World War II -- long after another Jennie, one on the Missouri side named Jennie Barelli, opened her namesake Italian restaurant on Cherry Street in 1938. For decades, there were two Jennie's restaurants in town, serving very different cuisines, which caused a lot of confusion until the end of the last decade, when the Barelli family closed the Italian place.

Amazingly, the smaller, more plebian Jennie's survives, as a tidy dining room and quasi-grocery. As proof that some things don't change even after eighty years, the neighborhood is still working-class and still attracts Eastern European immigrants, such as Bosnian-born Adis Hot. He used his savings to buy Jennie's earlier this year and runs it as a family enterprise, with his chatty teenage sister Alisa as head waitress and his mother, Caza, and wife, Elha, as cooks. The family lives in the apartments upstairs -- those former furnished rooms -- and scurries down early in the mornings to start preparing the dough for meat and spinach pies and poaching the apples for the Balkan dessert delicacy known as tufahija.

Out in the dining room, one wall is lined with shelves of Eastern European products, including boxed chocolates, jars of marinated vegetables, vinyl packets of roasted coffee (both Bosnian and Croatian; the latter is stronger) and a full assortment of CDs, such as the greatest hits of Sabin Saulic, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump.

It might have been Sabin warbling from the sound system on my first visit, when the room had been freshly painted a shade of creamy celery. As my friend Bob and I squeezed into a booth draped with a vinyl cloth, the perpetually harried Alisa made a proclamation that turned out to be her standard opening line: "You just missed a table of twenty who just left!" We asked her about the music, which was as languid as a Dean Martin ballad.

"It's in between country and hip-hop -- but Bosnian," she said as she tugged on the silk scarf wrapped around her head.

We were at one of two tables in the place. The other was in the middle of the room, where a trio of elderly ladies sat gossiping over coffee and crumbs of baklava. Their voices obscured the music to the point that I was riveted to the conversation: "I was semiconscious," one of them said, tapping her spoon on the table for emphasis, "but I could hear them sucking something up!" (It was hard to tell whether she was talking about a surgery or an alien abduction -- in Wyandotte County, anything can happen.)

We started the meal sharing a bowl of chilled marinated bell peppers, turned pale yellow and crunchy from brine and stuffed with tart sauerkraut. We scooped them up with warm pita bread, and Alisa brought a jar of imported pickled peppers over to the table. "They're from Bosnia!" she said.

I pointed out that the jar's label said "Imported from Hungary," and she looked shocked. "Well, we get them from Bosnia!" Alisa is sixteen, vivacious and not about to let her personal achievements go un-praised: "We're out of the spinach pies tonight," she announced on two of my visits. "I made them and they were immediately sold out at lunch. We have one meat pie left, which I also made, and it is excellent. And I hope you're going to order baklava because I made that too."

We didn't sample the meat pie on our first visit. Instead, I ordered the stuffed green pepper, which looked just like my mom's, filled with a disturbingly pinkish concoction of ground beef and rice. It tasted like Mom's too, unfortunately. Bob had better luck with cevapi, a plate of what the menu describes as "ptomemaic" sausages, whatever the hell that means. A recipe handed down from Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty?

"I don't know what it means either," Adis Hot told me later. "The woman who translated our menu just put it in."

The ten finger-length beef sausages were homemade and mildly spiced; they were boring by themselves but much more enjoyable with cool cucumber slices, a dab of sour cream, a bit of chopped onion and a chunk of creamy, slightly salty Bosnian cheese. The sausages and all of those accessories are best stuffed into a wedge of pita (or a slice of "French" bread, from Price Chopper). Jennie's menu is meat-heavy, with grilled liver smothered in onions, chunks of beef grilled on a skewer (listed as a "shiscabob") and a sautéed chopped steak. (There's no pork, however; the Hot family is Muslim.)

On my second visit, I took along my friend Karen. (She had never been to Kansas City, Kansas, and acted as if she actually were in Bosnia.) I greedily finished off a plate of the Hot family's Polish sausages, ignoring the fact that they too were oddly pink. Hot's mother, Caza, slices the sausages diagonally, so they're ready to be wrapped in bread and dipped in sour cream. Karen was so entranced by Alisa's opening spiel that she ordered the meat pie and almost beamed when it arrived as a crusty, puffy pastry embedded with ground beef, onions and spices. It looked like a giant Danish.

"It's fabulous!" Karen said, alternating bites of the crispy meat pie with pieces of a cold marinated pepper. "I thought Bosnian food was going to be heavy, bland, starchy food. You know -- winter food."

But it is heavy and starchy, I reminded her. What people don't expect is the cuisine's spice palette, which includes garlic, paprika and mustard. Even the green beans swim in a paprika-flecked cream sauce.

And if you aren't done in by the rib-sticking dinners, Jennie's offers quite a few desserts -- mostly pies from the local Golden Boy factory. The two best desserts are the ones actually baked in the Hots' kitchen: The baklava is a chewy, oversized wedge of nuts, phyllo pastry, nutmeg, cinnamon and honey that was everything Alisa had claimed it would be. And there's nothing better on a hot summer night than the tufahija, a pearly, chilled poached apple drenched in a delicately spiced syrup, its core replaced with a filling of crushed walnuts and almonds and a splash of cinnamon, all topped with a cloud of real whipped cream.

We might have lingered for a cup of Turkish coffee, but it was 8 p.m. and Alisa was racing around, clearly eager to close for the night. "Are you trying to chase us out of here?" asked Karen.

"Yes. I mean no," said Alisa, with all the guile of a bored teenager. "But I have been here all day, you know."

"It isn't like eating in a restaurant," Karen said as we departed with our leftovers. "It's like eating in somebody's house, with Mom in the kitchen and a totally typical teenage little sister clearing the plates, wanting to get back up to her room and listen to the stereo."

Maybe that's why this restaurant has outlasted so many of its contemporaries. It's not just homestyle. It's home.


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