Saturday, February 28, 2015

Gurra Café: “No, I am not Albanian, but I do like Albanian food!”

By Benjamin Ramos Rosado,

Walking into certain restaurants can make you feel as though you’ve traveled to a foreign country.  These restaurants have a unique blend of clientele, menu, and ambiance that immerse you in another culture; very few places possess this magnificent gift. The Bronx’s Gurra Café is one of these “gifted” restaurants; every time I visit I feel I’m swept away to far off Albania.

Located in the Belmont section of the Bronx, Gurra Café is a cozy restaurant with 7 tables, Albanian artwork on the walls, and wood paneling. Another food critic once referred to Gurra Café’s décor as resembling a Swiss chalet. To be honest, I’ve never been to Switzerland, but if the chalets are as clean and welcoming as Gurra, then I’m sure I’ll enjoy my visit to Geneva.

Since the 1970s, Belmont (AKA Bronx’s Little Italy) has steadily become an Albanian enclave. As the Italian immigrants moved out, Albanians and other Eastern Europeans replaced them. Naturally, this new migration has had a culinary impact on Little Italy. Goulash and Albanian sausage have become as much a neighborhood staple as gelato, pasta, and pizza.

The last time I visited Gurra, my young server, who became my adviser on Albanian cuisine, welcomed me and immediately made me feel at home.  She asked me, “Are you Albanian?” to which I replied, “No, I am not Albanian, but I like Albanian food!” She nodded in obvious disbelief and continued her incredible service.

As I reviewed the menu, I noticed some of the patrons (all older gentlemen) were arguing in Albanian, with occasional outbursts in English.  From what I could gather, they were having a heated political debate.  Some of the gentlemen punctuated their remarks with closed fists bangs on tables and frustrated moans and groans. Hearing all of this Albanian made me feel like I was somewhere in Tirana (Albania’s capital).

Having braved the Artic weather to get there, I decided to order the Grosh, a simple white bean soup, to unchill my frozen bones. My server assured me that this classic Albanian soup would warm me up and help me fight a cold if I had one.

Before my soup arrived, I was served a simple lettuce, tomato, and cucumber salad topped with shredded feta cheese.  Gurra Café always serves a complimentary salad to their patrons. The feta cheese, purchased from local cheese makers, elevated this simple garden salad to something worth writing about. Usually, I find feta cheese to be acidic and harsh, but this one was light and delightfully salty. It was the standout ingredient of the dish and enhanced the flavor of the crisp veggies.

As I enjoyed my salad, I admired the gorgeous Albanian artwork on the walls.  The paintings of landscapes and black and white photographs of small villages were captivating.  It sparked my curiosity, so I Google searched Albanian artwork on my phone.  I read that popular Albanian artwork combines their Mediterranean and Eastern European heritages to create distinctly unique pieces.

Within minutes, my Grosh arrived along with the biggest portion of bread I have ever been served. As I tore off a huge chunk of the locally baked bread, Gurra’s Chef walked over to my table, welcomed me, and shook my hand.  He looked at me with an inquisitive expression and then asked, “Are you Albanian?” I replied, “No, I am not Albanian, but I like Albanian food!”

He told me he was curious because I didn’t look Albanian to him. When I told him I was Puerto Rican he responded, “Really? You look more Irish, then Puerto Rican.” I replied, “I get that a lot.” He laughed, wished me a good meal and sat with a few of the older Albanian patrons. Hungry, I turned my attention to the aromatic bowl of soup in front of me.

The hearty and simple Grosh was wonderful! The beans were soft and savory; the broth was thick and seasoned to perfection. The bread and soup pairing was a great idea; it allowed me to sop up the rest of the delicious broth at the bottom of the bowl. 

My server noticed my clean bowl and jokingly asked if I had liked it.  I responded with a sarcastic, “It was ok…” We both laughed!  Beaming with pride, she asked for my entrée order and I enthusiastically responded, Albanian Goulash! She smiled and assured me I would like it, as well.

Goulash is an Eastern European stewed beef dish served with mashed potatoes or rice. It’s another simple, yet tasty dish that is eaten every day throughout Eastern Europe. Gurra’s version of this classic dish doesn’t disappoint! The beef was tender and delicious; the stewed tomato based broth was hearty and flavorful. The small mashed potato portion was creamy and buttery. This combination of flavors and textures was spot on. I enjoyed every bite and cleaned my plate, again, with my leftover bread.

I noticed my server had placed a spice shaker filled with a yellow seasoning next to my plate. She called it Vegeta and explained that it’s a common Albanian seasoning made of salt, garlic powder, and other dried ingredients; it’s essential to Albanian cooking.  I smelled it and told her that it reminded me of Adobo.  Immediately, she responded that many Albanians use Adobo when they can’t find Vegeta.  I think it’s amazing that some Albanian kitchens are using Latin flavors to make Eastern European cuisine! That’s multiculturalism at its best!

As I bundled up to brave the crazy winter weather, one of my neighbors asked if I had liked my dinner.  I told him I loved every bite! He smiled and then asked me, “Are you Albanian?” and I replied, “No, but I LOVE Albanian food!”  He laughed and said, “Come back anytime, Gurra is for everybody! Bye bye!”  That last bit of hospitality cemented my appreciation of Gurra.  It’s always wonderful to feel welcomed at such a homey and intimate place.

As I stepped out of Albania and back onto the snowy streets of the Bronx, I daydreamed about traveling all over Eastern Europe!  Who knows if this dream will come true or not?  But, what I can count on, is that Gurra will always be my Albanian home away from home.  Now it’s your turn to visit! Go taste for yourself! ¡Buen provecho!

Gurra Cafe
2325 Arthur Avenue
Bronx, NY

HOURS: Monday-Friday 11am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am-8pm
ATMOSPHERE: Calm and relaxed.
SERVICE: Excellent.
SOUND LEVEL: Conversational.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Albanian Gulash, Grosh, and the salads.
BEVERAGES: Beer, water, soda, tea, and Albanian Coffee.

1 comment:

  1. I have often walked by this restaurant but never ventured inside. Your review has spurred my curiosity and so I think I will try it the next time I'm in the area. Thank you.