Where the owners of Somun Superstar eat pierogies, burek and Bosnian baked goods in Toronto
The couple takes us on a tour of the city’s greatest Slavic hits
In September 2019, Alen Zukanović and Sanja Topić, partners in business and life, brought a taste of Bosnia to the Upper Beaches by opening Somun Superstar. When we asked if they would take us on a Balkan food crawl, Zukanović hemmed, hawed, quoted Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and finally concluded that he’d be more “comfortable in an in-between, loosely defined space”—all to say that, yes, they’d bring us to some of their favourite restaurants, but it wouldn’t be a strictly Balkan affair. In the end, the tour would be, broadly speaking, Slavic: two-thirds Bosnian with a stop over in Poland.
Hastings Snack Bar
Hastings Ave., 647-50-9260, @hastingssnackbar
Zukanović and Topić have always been drawn to restaurants that have “fresh, delicious food and a good vibe.” But, since they became restaurateurs, the story behind the places they choose to frequent has begun to matter more. “I care who the owners are,” says Topić. “If it’s a family-run place, I really want to support them.” Karolina Conroy; her mom, Ania Garbos; and their friend Asia Sławińska took over Hastings Snack Bar in 2016, when the previous chef-owner, John Chong, retired after 53 years. “I love that Hastings is run by women,” says Topić as she gets comfortable on one of the restaurant’s stools and looks over the menu—despite already knowing exactly what she wants to order.
Go-to item #1: Chicken schnitzel sandwich
Tasting notes: “This is a larger-than-life portion that makes me feel small just looking at it,” says Topić. The schnitzel is made from chicken breast that’s been pounded, dredged in flour and egg, then breaded before hitting the fryer. Hastings’s kitchen isn’t shy when it comes to toppings: pickles, sauerkraut, yellow peas, tomatoes and lettuce dress this super-sized stack, which is then stabbed with a knife (for stability) and garnished with a swirl of coriander-spiced marinated carrots. Topić particularly loves how the pickled elements of this sandwich balance the richness of the fried schnitzel.
Go-to item #2: Mushroom cabbage roll
Tasting notes: This dill-redolent mushroom-and-buckwheat-stuffed cabbage roll is vastly different from the ones Zukanović and Topić grew up eating. “The Polish make their cabbage rolls bigger and slightly sweeter than our sarma, but I love this vegetarian version—it’s so earthy and light,” says Zukanović.
Go-to item #3: Traditional pierogi
Tasting notes: Topić describes these made-from-scratch pierogi as “off-the-charts pillowy soft.” The traditional dumplings are filled with cottage cheese and potatoes, though many Canadians falsely assume that traditional pierogi means cheddar and potatoes. “Ask 100 people in Poland what cheddar is—no one will know,” says co-owner Asia Sławińska, who had never heard of cheddar in a pierogi before moving to Toronto. She’s a convert now, though, and plans to bring some back for her family when she visits them later this summer.
Go-to item #4: Plum jam–filled doughnut
Tasting notes: “These are deep-fried perfection, but I think it’s the sweet, smoky smell of the plum filling that does it for me,” says Zukanović. “This is the ultimate comfort food—you know life is good when there’s fresh pączki.” (Note: available only on Wednesdays.)
44 Wellesworth Dr., Etobicoke, 416-695-7396, mrakovic.com
“This place feels like home,” says Zukanović. When he and Topić first immigrated to Canada, they settled in Winnipeg. But, whenever they were in Toronto, the couple would trek over to Mrakovic for ćevapčići and burek. “It’s in the middle of this residential Etobicoke neighbourhood. You don’t expect it to be here, so when you stumble onto it, it feels like a hidden gem,” he says.
In 1994, when Meho Mraković, who worked as a butcher back in Sarajevo, first immigrated to Canada with his wife and sons, Amir and Adis, he settled in Quebec City. But he knew there was a bigger ex-Yugoslavian population in Toronto. So one day he smoked a few hundred pounds of meat and hit the highway, driving west toward the GTA (this was way before Waze). “By pure luck, he exited at Islington, because he was low on gas, and found himself in Little Croatia,” says Amir. Everything sold so quickly that Meho made five more meat-laden trips before deciding to move his whole family to Toronto.
Meho’s smoked meat business was booming, but it wasn’t necessarily in line with Toronto’s by-laws. “We were immigrants; we didn’t know how things worked,” says Amir with a sly smile. “We sold a lot of meat from our balcony.” It wasn’t pesky red tape that forced the family to finally open a by-the-books retail space but rather a friendly comment from one of their clients, who happened to be an architect. “He told us that it was maybe unwise to keep 3,000 kilograms of meat on our balcony and that it might collapse,” says Adis. So, in 2003, the Mraković family opened up their first location. After 20 years in business, they recently opened a second outpost, in Oakville.
Go-to item #1: Pita (burek)
Tasting notes: Everywhere else in the Balkans, this dish is usually just referred to as “burek with [insert filling here, be it meat, cheese, spinach or potato].” In Bosnia, this category of savoury pastry is called pita, not burek. When it comes to pastry nomenclature, Bosnians are very particular. There, each type of pita has a unique name: sirnica is with cheese, krompiruša is with potato, zeljanica is with spinach, and burek is considered burek only if it’s filled with beef.
Apart from Bosnia’s specific savoury pastry designations, Bosnian burek also sets itself apart from the rest of the Balkans by how it’s prepared. “Bosnians will insist that their pita is rolled, not layered, and that it’s always made with jufka, a thin hand-stretched dough,” says Zukanović. At Mrakovic, they hand-pull the dough, regularly churning out still-warm-from-the-oven pies. “Because it’s not industrially made, the dough is thicker in some parts and thinner in others, which makes it so surprising and delicious to eat,” says Topić. “I love those pockets of warm, savoury air between the sheets.”
Go-to item #2: Veal and potatoes cooked under the bell
Tasting notes: A sač (pronounced “sa’ch”) is a large metal bell that is used as an oven. The meat—bone-in veal shoulder, in this case—potatoes, carrots and onions are put in a dish together with a bit of water and salt. Then the sač goes overtop before being covered in coals. Three hours later, its contents come out ridiculously tender, with the meat drippings rendering the veggies decadent beyond belief.
Go-to item #3: Tulumba
Tasting notes: Deep-fried dough soaked in a sugary syrup: What’s not to love? “This is a quintessential Turkish dessert,” says Zukanović. “Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years, and that’s going to leave a mark! Mrakovic’s food is in an authentically Bosnian Ottoman culinary tradition—as much as it’s possible in Canada—and it’s unapologetically traditional.”
257 Scarlett Rd., 416-604-4419, jadrankapastries.com
“Just as Mrakovic transports me home, Jadranka transports me to my childhood,” says Zukanović, who grew up frequenting the original Jadranka in Sarajevo. “Every time we’d visit my grandparents, or any time we were in that quarter of town, we’d stop by for a cake. Jadranka was an institution.”
Vanja Ljuboje was, Zukanović says, basically born in the bakery. His family ran the original Jadranka, and he spent most of his youth helping with odd jobs like grinding hazelnuts and walnuts. As a teen, he wasn’t particularly interested in pastry. But, after immigrating to Toronto, he and his sister, Lilja Jamakosmanović, started making and selling their family’s famed desserts as a side hustle. It was only as his sister’s sous-chef that Ljuboje started to lean in to the family business. “My biggest regret is not learning more from my grandfather,” he says.
By 2003, when the brother-sister duo finally opened a brick-and-mortar shop, Ljuboje had become a prolific baker in his own right, churning out over a dozen different cakes daily. Many of the desserts sold at the Jadranka on Scarlett Road had been sold at the original location in Sarajevo, and Zukanović is adamant that Ljuboje has nailed the recipes. “They taste exactly the same as the ones I ate as a kid,” he says. “Whereas Mrakovic leans in to Bosnian’s Ottoman culinary tradition, Jadranka’s cakes are very much Central European—a culinary vestige of Austria-Hungary’s short but hugely transformative 40-year rule.”
Go-to item #1: Bohem
Tasting notes: Layers of buttercream, ground walnuts and chocolate define this decadent dessert. In the photo below, it’s sitting to the left of a shamponez, a similar cake minus the chocolate. Bohem is Zukanović’s favourite.
Go-to item #2: Krempita
Tasting notes: This lightly sweet thick custard is sandwiched between two flaky sheets of dough. You know it’s a good krempita based on the jiggle—you don’t want the custard to be overly set.
Go-to item #3: Shampita
Tasting notes: This is the sweeter sister version of krempita, but instead of custard, it’s filled with meringue. Topić says it’s “like eating a cloud.”