If you can’t stand the heat, you probably wouldn’t last five minutes aboard Balkan Treat Box.
That’s because Loryn Nalic’s food truck is hot – and not just in terms of its red-hot reputation.
In just a few square feet, the food truck features no less than three forms of heat: A wood-fired oven baking airy Turkish flatbread, a coal-fired grill lined with Bosnian cevapi sausages and gas-heated spit roaster slowly spinning shaved-to-order chicken. It’s a unique setup, and one that's proved instrumental in creating the wood-fired flavors that have cemented Balkan Treat Box’s reputation among St. Louis’ best restaurants – roaming or otherwise.
Although the truck has been on the streets for less than two years (earning its share of raves, including a mention in Food & Wine), Balkan has been a longtime labor of love for Loryn, who owns the business with her husband, Edo. Loryn has worked in the restaurant industry for years, including overseeing pastry and bread service at the now-shuttered Luciano’s Trattoria as well as Tavern 43 and also working special events for the venerable Pappy’s Smokehouse. She credits her childhood best friend, who is Croatian, with first introducing her to cevapi, though it wasn’t until she met Edo – a Sarajevo native who arrived in St. Louis with his family in 1998 seeking refuge after the Bosnian War – that she truly fell in love with Balkan flavors.
“It just spoke to me: really slow-style food, beautiful to make and beautiful to watch people make,” Loryn says. “That style of cuisine was really moving for me, and of course it brought back amazing memories for [Edo].”
After they met, Loryn and Edo frequented St. Louis’ many Bosnian restaurants in the Bevo Mill neighborhood. She dreamed of opening her own place and began mapping out plans in her head, but first, she knew she had to go straight to the source.
In 2013, Loryn traveled to Sarajevo, where she spent two months working in restaurants, bakeries and home kitchens, furthering her knowledge of Bosnian flavors and cooking techniques. She traveled alone, and actually met Edo’s parents on the trip for the first time after seven years of marriage. “When I was over there, they were willing to share [recipes],” Loryn says. “The culture itself is very hospitable – I felt like they were really excited that somebody cared and wanted to learn about what they were doing. Being true to what I was taught and what I saw is really important.”
“They really embraced this American woman wanting to cook their recipes,” Edo adds.
In particular, Loryn learned the techniques for preparing cevapi, and how – although styles change from region to region – the dish relies on a simple, straightforward combination of spices. She also fell in love with somun (a soft, chewy Bosnian bread similar to pita bread), and saw firsthand how cooking the bread with fire imparts a flavor that can’t be mimicked in other ovens.
“You’re in this big city of Sarajevo, and people are walking the streets, and you catch wafts of fresh-baked breads and meats grilling over wood, and that’s not something you forget,” Loryn says. “Everything else around you goes quiet. You walk up to this tiny little shack with a giant wood-burning oven and order a loaf of bread, and they pull it out of the oven, put it in a piece of paper and put it in your hands. It’s just a magical moment.”
Once back in the States, Loryn and Edo set to work on what would become Balkan Treat Box. They decided to start with a food truck to test the concept, with the eventual goal of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Although Loryn started on her recipe for somun that same year, it wasn’t until two years later, in 2015, that she knew she had it right.
She took a test batch to Gerard Craft’s Pastaria and baked the somun in the restaurant’s wood-burning pizza oven, having previously only made the bread in standard ovens at a much lower temperature. At a higher temperature, the moisture evaporates more quickly from the dough, which then puffs up with a light, aerated texture. “A home oven is inconsistent, because if you open the door, the temperature drops 50ºF,” Loryn says. “Once I finally got that recipe and flavor profile right and took it to Pastaria, it was full-on tears. I was sitting at Pastaria with Edo’s brother, Emir, and he just started laughing.”
“It’s very important to make it as authentic as we can,” Edo adds. “Back home, somun is something they’ve been doing since the late 1500s and, as you can imagine, they cooked with wood. So it just has to be done with wood.”
So that’s what Loryn and Edo did. They outfitted Balkan Treat Box with not only a standard food-truck kitchen, but a wood-fired pizza oven as well. Although the bakeries Loryn visited in Sarajevo used wood-fired bread ovens, which are typically longer and shallower, she knew a pizza oven would be more feasible for the truck, where space constraints are, of course, a major issue.
The oven is direct-vented and mounted on the outside of the truck so that only the face of the oven is inside. It bakes at between 800ºF and 900°F – roughly twice as hot as your standard home oven – and that's essential to emulate those old-world flavors Loryn fell in love with during her travels. Upon walking up to the truck, the massive oven, glowing orange with flames, is the first thing you’ll notice, even from down the block. At the walk-up window, the unmistakable smell of hardwood smoke permeates the air.
The truck, which officially hit the streets in St. Louis in December 2016, features a deceptively simple menu that highlights two traditional wood-fired breads: the somun and pide, a boat-shaped Turkish flatbread. The pide is the truck’s most famous – or, at least, most-Instagrammed – dish, topped with seasoned meat, kajmak (a dairy condiment made of cream and cheese), ajvar (a tangy roasted red pepper spread), herbs and cabbage.
Loryn makes the dough for the somun and pide from scratch each day at around 4am. The truck rolls up to its spot around 9am, when Loryn will light the oven. Because the oven is 100 percent wood-fired and doesn’t rely on a gas or propane starter, it typically takes around an hour for it to get to temperature. About an hour before service begins, Loryn will start throwing loaves into the oven. The same hydrated sourdough is used for both breads, which only bake for about a minute and a half to two minutes in the oven at around 700°F or 800°F. After its turn in the oven, the somun rests for eight to 10 minutes on a wire rack – where the bread continues to cook from residual heat – before it can be cut open.
The pide dough is par-baked ahead of time with either beef and cheese or just cheese, then baked to order with the customary sauces and fresh herbs. The second time the pides go into the oven, it’s at a slightly higher temperature – around 900°F – which Loryn achieves by feeding more logs into the fire.
The pides are only in for about 30 seconds – that’s all it takes for the cheese to start bubbling up. In the early days, Loryn made the pides to order from start to finish, but that quickly proved unfeasible: Whereas Balkan used to fire 35 orders in a single service, the truck now does up to 100.
As with most food trucks, the weather is a constant battle; if it’s too hot outside, for instance, the dough will quickly overproof. So Loryn regularly monitors the weather and adjusts her recipes; if the temperature hits about 93°F or higher, she’ll add ice to the dough. Balkan frequently sells out, with the pide usually the first to go. “Knowing how many people will come is a huge challenge, because we don’t reheat or save product,” Loryn says. “I came from Pappy’s, where there’s a philosophy that it’s better to sell out than put out an inferior product. That was really ingrained in me.”
Somun, a round bread cut lengthwise to resemble a sort of sandwich, is the base for Balkan’s other two dishes. The cevapi features somun stuffed with the namesake grilled beef sausages, plus kajmak, onion and cabbage, while the döner is packed with chicken (spit-roasted and shaved to order on the truck), onion, cheese, cabbage, tomato, lettuce and house sauce.
The cevapi are grilled over open flames on a half-gas, half wood-assist grill, and the wood smoke gives the sausages a snappy, crisp exterior while the inside stays perfectly juicy. As the little sausages cook, Loryn presses them down with a piece of somun to steam them. “It’s kind of the same way they do it at White Castle,” she says with a laugh.
After perfecting the somun and pide, the cevapi sausages were one of the hardest recipes for Loryn to emulate from her trip in Bosnia. “Little things would set it off – if the sausages were pressed too long, or if there was too much [black] pepper,” Loryn says. “I just loved them so much when we were in Sarajevo, so I wanted to get it right.”
But those learning curves only helped set Balkan Treat Box up for more success: Soon, Loryn and Edo will open a brick-and-mortar location in Webster Groves, Missouri. The fast-casual restaurant features around 40 seats for diners and a similar – albeit much larger – wood-burning oven, as well as a spit roaster and wood-assist grill. In the new oven, Loryn can fire about twice as much bread as on the truck. The larger space will also allow her to expand the menu to include specials she used to run on the truck before it got too busy, like lahmacun (Turkish pizza), patlidzan (grilled eggplant) and balik ekmek (grilled whitefish) served with somun.
Really, though, it doesn’t matter if your first taste of Balkan’s wood-fired fare is enjoyed standing outside a blistering hot food truck in Downtown St. Louis or huddled around a table in the likely-to-be-crowded Webster Groves restaurant. Wherever you are, Loryn Nalic’s cooking will transport you back to that magical moment she first experienced in Sarajevo.
“It’s the most flattering thing when someone says they feel comforted by this food because it reminds them of home, and maybe they haven’t been home in a while,” Loryn says. “It’s a little bit of magic; somehow, some way, you feel part of a family. As somebody who did not grow up eating this food, making it right and taking the long way to do things pays off because of those customers.”
Balkan Treat Box, 8103 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves, Missouri, balkantreatbox.com