Of the Old World
Where to find some of the finest pastichio, moussaka, and moi-moi in Austin
Kebab Palace1319 Rutland, 836-8668
Daily, 8am-10:30pm (sometimes later on weekends)
Twenty-five-year-old Macedonia native Dejan Kostovski has lived in the United States since 1994. However, he didn't find his true American home until a computer job in the field of high tech medical equipment brought him to Austin. Dejan likes Austin so much that last year, he persuaded his parents, Jelica and Stojan Kostovski, to turn their restaurants in the Macedonian capital city of Skopje over to an older brother and emigrate here. When the Kostovskis opened Kebab Palace on Rutland Drive earlier this year, they were unaware that the immediate neighborhood was home to a large group of fellow immigrants from other Balkan states. Soon, customers from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey were seated at the few card tables in their small dining room. "The neighbors thought we chose this location because they were already here. They were very glad to see us. One guy from Turkey got tears in his eyes when he saw that my mother makes burek," recalls Dejan. It wasn't long before the news spread via word of mouth and e-mail, and tiny Kebab Palace began to attract a diverse clientele: hungry folks from just about any country that had once felt the culinary influence of the ancient Ottoman Empire. To these people, Jelica Kostovski's cooking tastes like home. The warm and friendly welcome we've received on our visits to Kebab Palace made us feel at home there, too.
The menu at Kebab Palace is pure Macedonian home cooking with a small nod to the mainstream American love of the sandwich. It's possible to buy perfectly good hoagies or gyros, and that's a fine place to start. All sandwiches come on Jelica's fresh bread and are accompanied by fries. In memory of the soccer hooligans in his country, Dejan insisted the menu include what he calls the Soccer Sandwich ($5.99), juicy strips of lamb and beef drenched in a tangy cucumber sauce and covered with melted Dutch cheese. Evidently, it's traditional to purchase these mighty handfuls of goodness from street vendors before and after soccer matches in Skopje. For his legion of customers who are soccer fanatics like himself, Dejan added a satellite dish this week so soccer matches from around the world can be part of the menu.
Although I knew nothing about Macedonian cuisine on our first visit to Kebab Palace, I did recognize a few of the items listed on the menu. After ordering, I realized that the Macedonian versions of Moussaka ($5.59), Dolmas ($5.59), and Baklava ($2.99) differ somewhat from their Greek counterparts. Macedonian moussaka has no eggplant and no béchamel sauce, only savory ground meat and sliced potatoes topped with a thin layer of eggs and cheese. Jelica's dainty baklava is the best I've ever eaten, soaked in pale Macedonian honey with a refreshing hint of orange. There were plenty of new culinary items to explore, however, and Dejan was only too happy to explain each dish and give his recommendations. Be sure to try the Tavche Gravce ($4.99), a hearty baked-bean casserole that is a national favorite. We were also very impressed with another house specialty: the Kjofte, or Turkish kebabs (10 pieces for $5.99), tasty bullet-shaped meat balls that turned out to be addictive. And while the Balkan delight Burek ($2.99 a slice, $11.99 for a whole pie) might not remind you of grandmother's cooking, it is a truly remarkable dish. Multiple layers of delicate, stretched-thin pastry are filled with ground meat for burek, or feta cheese for sirnica, and baked in rounds. Each slice is a wonder, crisp and flaky, and best eaten while piping hot.
If you're still hungry enough for dessert, be sure to ask about the aforementioned baklava or see if Jelica Kostovski has time to make one of her signature palachinkas for your table. The large, elegant dessert crepe enfolds marmalade, or on our most recent visit, fresh bananas sweetened with syrup, and dusted with hazelnuts. It's delicious. Dejan tells me that Jelica has also been making fancy decorated birthday cakes filled with fruits and nuts, and they're developing quite a following, as well.
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