Not many food dives escape Zio’s nose—and stomach. And the power walks he takes through his neighborhood of Astoria require nourishment. No doubt on one of those power walks Zio sniffed out the scent of grilling meat coming from a small Balkan restaurant in ethnically-diverse Astoria called Ukus Pie and Grill. The Bosnian word “ukus,” I learned can be translated to mean “taste,” and after a taste of Ukus’s “mixed grill” and bean and smoked meat stew, Zio was hooked and was soon a frequent enough visitor to be able to address the owner of the restaurant by his given name.
“Say hello to Fico for me,” Zio told the man, who was not Fico, but who was serving us on the night our group got together to experience what Zio had become well versed in.
“You picked a winner,” Eugene bellowed at the end of our meal and after tallying up the modest bill.
And none of the five present in Astoria on what was a pleasant spring evening could disagree.
On this rare occasion, Zio took charge. As familiar with the Ukus menu as he was with the 1977 New York Yankee lineup, he got up and ordered at the counter/grill starting us off with a tomato and onion salad, followed by a two slices of pie; phyllo-dough layered bread stuffed, in our case, one with cheese, and the other with cabbage. The “slices” so large and dense they could sustain a man for days during a harsh Balkan winter.
Hearty, crusty bread also came with the tomato salad and was the perfect vessel to soak up the juice from the tomatoes.
The man who was not Fico made it easy for our group by splitting one order of the bean and smoked meat soup three ways. We slurped from three smaller bowls; the smoked flavor of the meat intense; the broth rich with pureed white beans.
The platter of grilled mixed meats came out next. Dark, charcoal-colored meats including a kebab of lamb layered the plate with a piece of grilled chicken being the only exception to this red meat extravaganza. Eugene quickly speared a piece of one of the charred meats and shoved it into his mouth. A grimace soon followed.
“No…no…liver,” Eugene spat, the frown still on his face as he forced the piece of veal liver down his throat.
Hearing that there was liver on the plate brightened Gerry’s sleepy eyes and he quickly zeroed in on the much-desired organ meat.
All the meats were accompanied by a bland cream cheese and a yellow-orange sweet pepper spread.
Rebounding nicely from the shock of the liver, Eugene proclaimed his approval for the piquant pieces of sausage that were on the grill plate. “You know what these remind me of,” he said, dangling a speared piece of sausage in front of all of us. “Slim Jims…remember them.”
We did remember the pencil-sized cut of beef jerky sold individually in the delis of our youth, but frankly, I didn’t get the comparison. Still, Eugene made a point of repeating his claim until the dishes were all cleared from our table.
Wandering a few feet to the counter, we spied several dessert options. Again, Zio showed his leadership capabilities quickly picking out a slice of baklava and another, a sphere-like object that was described to us as a coconut cake stuffed with chocolate.
And, once more, after sampling the coconut cake, Eugene displayed his baby boomer knowledge. “Just like a Hostess…whaddya call them?”
“Sno balls,” Mike from Yonkers said, quickly filling in Eugene’s blanks.
I took a bite from the Bosnian coconut concoction. It was there—that distinctive taste and something I hadn’t experienced in many years. A Sno Ball.
The starch of the desserts was the perfect accompaniment to the protein assault from all that meat. And also the perfect finale.
To conclude, we often ridicule Zio for some of his food choices on foreign turf, but in his ‘hood, the man knows where to go to find the gold.