This is Part II of a 3-part series about Bulgarian food. Part I is a basic introduction to Bulgarian food and drink. In Part III, I’ll tell you about the taxi ride to the airport, and the intriguing food tip from our driver. For now, here are four cabbie-recommended places to eat in Sofia – and one further afield.
I like to tell people that eating my first Bulgarian tomato was like going from black and white to technicolor. That said, the advent of fast food, and the prestige attached to things like hot dogs and pizza, means it’s not always easy to find technicolor flavor when you’re eating out in Bulgaria. (Though, to be fair, this is true in a lot of other countries, too.)
Still, it’s possible to find good, cheap things to eat in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital — especially if you happen to be traveling with a half-Bulgarian taxi driver from Berlin. Without further ado, here are five of our favorite places to eat in Sofia, and one further afield:
1. Старата Круша – Starata Krushta: The name means ‘the old pear’. This is one of our favorite spots in Sofia for Shopska Salata – the tomato, cucumber and feta salad that is Bulgaria’s national dish — and a great place in general to try Bulgarian specialties like снежанка салата (snow-white salad, with yogurt and cucumber), яйца по панагюрски (poached eggs with yogurt and fresh dill), and агнешка главичка (lamb’s head). They also specialize in seafood. Though it’s a white tablecloth restaurant in a fancy hillside neighborhood on the southern side of the city called Boyana, prices are reasonable: Dinner for two with appetizers and beverages costs 30-40 dollars. (Boiana, 6 Belovodski Pat Str, +359 02 9590949. Open 12pm-12am, daily).
2. Soup House: The 500 years Bulgaria spent under Ottoman rule were a dark time in the country’s history. For better or worse, the food still reflects the Turkish influence. Of course, there’s doener kebab, and it is worth trying here – I happen to like it better than doener in Berlin (Sorry, Berlin!), where it tends to get stuffed with cabbage and slathered with sugar-laced sauces. But beyond doener kebab, there are also handful of cantinas in Sofia where you can find typical Turkish dishes like stuffed peppers and stewed eggplant and kisir (bulgur wheat salad with tomatoes and fresh parsley). Of these cantinas, my favorite is Soup House, where the specials change daily, and where they give you fresh slices of lemon to squeeze into your chicken soup. Yes, it’s buffet, but they don’t let the meat dry out or the vegetables get overcooked. $10 will buy you a feast. The staff is also friendly and English-speaking. (Hristo Botev 62, +359 87 512 1105, Open 24 hours)
3. Antep Baklava /Антеп Баклава – This Turkish bakery, around the corner from the Women’s Bazaar (Женски Пазар), makes what is probably the best baklava in Sofia. They also sell breakfast pastries, Turkish delight, creme caramel and rice pudding, but don’t miss their sarma (pistachio baklava), made with nuts from Gaziantep, one of the finest pistachio-producing regions in the world. (ул. Цар Симеон 89/Ulitsa Tsar Simeon 89, +359 87 790 7575. Open: 7 days, 7am-9pm)
4. The Old Oven / Старата Фурна – This store sells some of the most remarkable dried fruits and nuts I’ve tasted anywhere in the world. Pick it: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, fresh dates, dried apricots, dried mango – it’s all top-quality. A wonderful place to pick up a healthy snack – or stock up on supplies for a long hike. Bonus: If you happen to have a large piece of lamb or pork, they’re happy to roast it for you in their wood-fired oven. (Graf Ignatiev Str. 76, Open: 7 days, 8am-10pm. 2 other locations: ул. Пиротска 62, and The Mall, ниво -2)
5. Banicharnitsa (Bakery) in Kostinbrod – You’ll have to take a taxi to get here, or a bus, but this little bakery, on a side street in Kostinbrod, a Communist-bloc suburb northwest of Sofia, is worth every kilometer you travel out of your way.
Arrive no later than 10am to taste some of the best banitsa (filo pastry stuffed with feta cheese or spinach or pumpkin or apple) in the city – rolled and baked on the premises. When I caught the head baker smoking outside after I’d finished my second one, I told him (in my broken Bulgarian) how spectacular I thought his pastry was. He blew some smoke out of his nostrils and simply said, “I know.”
(баничарница, обединена 46, 2230 костинброд/ Banicharnitsa, Obedinena 46, 2230 Kostinbrod.)
Note: A taxi ride from the Central Bus Station to the bakery should take 20-25 minutes and should cost about 15 or 20 leva, about 10-15 US dollars. Be sure to ask your driver about the price before you take off! O.K. Taxi is a good company, but others sometimes set their rates randomly and stick you with an astronomical fare at the end of your ride.