Ćevapčiči with Ajvar on the Beach

For me life doesn’t get much better than a plate of čevapčiči and ajvar with a solo of Laško on a sun-licked beach in southern Slovenia. The combination of juicy sausage, smoky veg spread and light Mediterranean lager on a hot summer day was enough for me in April to respond a resounding “Yes!” to my brother’s invitation to spend a week in Piran with the family.

I’ve had čevapčiči (diminutive or the more common čevapi) quite a few times recently at Ambar, a Balkan restaurant in D.C.’s Capitol Hill. There they are dressed up for the D.C. crowd and served with goat cheese melted on. The little sausage fingers are presented on an adorable individual cast iron grill on a bed of roasted red peppers and go down pretty smooth with a rakia martini. It’s a little different in Portorož.

2Portorož is a tourist spot, though one which is still predominantly Slovenian. There are some Hungarians and Germans walking around, sure, but I don’t think I saw a single American or Western European the entire week I spent there. It’s a beach town where urbanites from Ljubljana drive to on weekends, a good place for the folks up in the mountains to get a tan. The great thing about the largely Slovenian makeup of the tourist crowd is that local restaurants don’t resort to desperate bullshit menus to draw deep-pocketed foreigners in. There are no tacos or tapas, no Caesar on the salad list. There are traditional Slovene or pan-Balkan dishes on most menus, often supplemented with a strong selection of pizzas which, due to Piran’s proximity to northeastern Italy, is almost always pretty kick-ass. Entrees fall into two major categories on restaurant menus: grilled meat and fish. The #1 grilled meat fave is by far čevapi. It exists on pretty much every menu. I had it twice: pool-side on the patio of some luxurious hotel restaurant and once out of an aluminum to-go container brought to the beach by my brother and his wife.

11The čevapi from the hotel restaurant was of slightly better quality, though it was served with french fries and grilled zucchini instead of just ajvar and white onion as is the classic way. But I guess tourists on a beach – even Slovene tourists on a Slovene beach – like french fries on the side, so this is to be expected at a nice beachfront lounge. I didn’t mind. The meat, a mixture of minced pork and beef shaped into finger-length little sausages, was succulent and very well seasoned with just a bit of garlic, salt and black pepper. It had a wonderful smoky char from the grill and plenty of tasty oil on the surface to grease the engine and make the sausages glitter seductively. On the side was a nice mound of ajvar, the roasted red pepper spread which is the national condiment of pretty much every country in former Yugoslavia. It’s smoky and garlicky, bright red, and awesome when piled atop pretty much any form of grilled meat. This one was delicious and clearly house-made, which I appreciated, especially because there are so many jarred versions of the stuff available in Piran. The only thing missing from the platter was the white onion, the freshness and heat of which cuts the fat of the čevapi well.

When in Slovenia find a place with juicy čevapi – ajvar and onion on the side – and you’re golden. A wonderfully satisfying beach day meal, best when enjoyed with an ice cold beer.

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