If you don’t spend a lot of time driving around Eastern Europe, then you might not realize that the BG in the name BG Bistro stands for Bulgaria, just as CH stands for Switzerland, or D for Germany. The sign says “European Cuisine” underneath, and I suppose this is reasonable, although that description casts rather a wide net. After all, you don’t go looking for Irish stew in Sicily.
I asked Rumen Stefanov, who owns and operates the restaurant along with his American wife, Jodi, why he didn’t put “Bulgarian Cuisine” on the sign instead. “The Bulgarians know we’re here,” he told me, “and the Americans don’t have any idea what Bulgarian cuisine means.” Oh.
But upon entering this comely place—split in two with one half a bar, the other a cozy dining area—you’ll hear Slavic languages such as Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian being spoken, and quickly learn the specialty here is indeed Bulgarian cuisine, a hearty hybrid of Ottoman, Balkan and Austro-Hungarian influence.
There are lots of meat coming out of this kitchen (dried, pan-fried, char-grilled and sautéed, garlicky coiled sausages, funky tripe in soup), as well as a ubiquitous feta cheese presence, the salty, crumbly sheep (and sometimes partly goat) milk cheese that Bulgarians sprinkle on just about anything. If you’ve ever had Greek salad, you get the idea immediately. Shopska (fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions blanketed with a flurry of shredded Bulgarian feta) graces almost every table in here, as do festive red place mats, shakers full of sharena (paprika and dill-flavored salt eaten on hot bread brushed with melted butter) and thimble-shaped glasses of Bulgarian grappa, which kicks like a drunken mule.
One distinctly Bulgarian dish is tarator, a cold cucumber and yogurt soup flavored with dill, the perfect companion to the flaky, warm cheese pies called banitza, which you can eat here before noon. (They only make two dozen, and they sell out every day.)
Bulgaria’s answer to Greek saganaki is Kashkaval pane, pan-fried breaded Kashkaval cheese, a semi-hard yellow cheese that cooperates perfectly with breading by melting just enough to stretch when cut. A platter of dried meats—various Balkan salamis, hams and sujuk, a dry sausage flavored with cumin and red pepper—is also popular, but watch out if you’re planning on a main course. This baby will finish off most normal appetites.
Stefanov tried to talk me out of the tripe soup, and I wish I’d let him. Maybe you have to be Bulgarian to love this primordial, fetid concoction, but I do like tripe in other forms. This one, however, needs a serious makeover.
But I had no such complaints about the various grilled meats, especially kiufteta (flat, onion-happy meatballs with grill marks on both sides) and kebapcheta (cylinders of ground, spiced meat, something like the seekh kabab served at Indian restaurants).
Most entrées come with two sides, such as french fries, a filling bean salad or a more austere cabbage salad. And there are red wines from Bulgaria priced well under $20, such as a velvety merlot, or a more tannic, full-bodied cabernet sauvignon. For dessert, try the biscuit cake, sort of a Balkan tiramisu, done in crunchy, creamy layers.
It’s another layer for European Cuisine in Las Vegas, as well.
6160 W. Tropicana Ave., 222-9003. Open 10 a.m.-3 a.m. daily. Dinner for two, $25-$43.
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