A few months ago, I saw an episode of “Diners Drive-ins and Dives.” In it, Guy Fieri featured a Bulgarian tapas restaurant in Las Vegas called Bar Forte. This restaurant is located about three miles from my house. The young beautiful woman who runs the restaurant was a UNLV student and she features her family’s recipes.
All of the food she cooked for the show looked amazing. I wanted to crawl right through the screen and try the tomatoes, peppers, onions, feta, and egg baked in a traditional Thracian clay pot. I vowed that I would be visiting that place very soon.
Lots of time passed and I kept hearing about different people going to this restaurant and really loving it. It became the talk of the town. However, for some reason, I kept forgetting about it whenever we were going out to eat. I cannot believe how much time I lost forgetting I wanted to try it. Finally, on a 105-degree evening in July, I found myself looking for the little restaurant in a strip mall not far from home.
Claud and I walked in and our eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room. Once we could see everything, I was happy to be there. It really felt like Europe and the beautiful young woman who we saw in the episode stood right there behind the bar. The servers wore black and white stripes on their dresses or t-shirts. The walls were red and black. She has European magazine pages on the walls and colorful twinkle lights hanging from the ceiling. It was a Tuesday night and the place was packed. We sat on a high top table and ordered the house white wine. The waitress brought our water over in a reused Russian vodka bottle. Our wine showed up in plastic ice bag resembling a gift bag with the bottle sitting in the ice. This bottle was also reusable. I loved all of the little quaint touches she made to the place. Then, I had a look through the menu.
She has Forte fries, which are French fries with Bulgarian feta cheese. Obviously, I was going to have the Thracian clay pot dish also with Bulgarian cheese. I wanted the watermelon and feta salad and the sweet peppers stuffed with feta. Are you sensing a common theme here? Yes, everything I wanted had Bulgarian feta cheese with it. I had to narrow it down. I chose the clay pot and the Shopska salad.
I had no idea what a Shopska salad was but I liked the ingredients: roasted peppers, onions, tomatoes, olives, cucumber and it’s covered in shredded Bulgarian feta. Sold! Claud ordered a platter of homemade sausages, which came with a slaw and white beans. He also got the Stroganoff fries. Our Shopska salad arrived first. It looked colorful, fresh and tasty. We dove right in. I loved the addition of roasted peppers. I never thought to throw those into a salad. I really do love roasted peppers. The Bulgarian feta was cheese like I have never tasted before. I fell madly in love and wasn’t pleased to see how much Claud was also enjoying it. It was disappearing fast. It was so unbelievably delicious. Since that night, I have returned to the restaurant four times within a two-week period. I tried lots of different tapas but always ordered the Shopska salad.
Looking into it, I discovered that there isn’t actually a cheese called Bulgarian feta. It is called sirene and tastes a lot like Greek feta. It’s a bit saltier and denser than Greek feta. The Shopska salad is popular throughout central Europe, especially Bulgaria. It was invented in 1970 by the compilers of socialist restaurant’s menus in Bulgaria. It was created in hopes to entice tourists to visit Bulgarian restaurants. Since then, the Shopska salad has turned into a national signature dish. It is a very common and popular starter.
I made it for my family. Jack is still in England. So, I made it for Claud, Daphne and two of her friends. I bought Greek feta since my market doesn’t carry Bulgarian sirene. I made a fairly large platter thinking I would have some for lunch and want to continue eating it throughout the evening. Once it was finished, we all grabbed bowls and started eating it. Nobody even sat down. We finished the entire platter just standing there in the kitchen. I was sad to watch it go, again.
Time: 45 minutes (15 if you buy roasted peppers)
1 yellow pepper
1 red pepper
8 medium tomatoes, quartered
10 scallions, sliced
large yellow onion, diced
8 olives, your choice
1 large European cucumber, sliced with skin on
cup olive oil
cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Herbs de Provence
a dash of salt and more to sprinkle on the vegetables
12 ounces feta cheese (unless you can get Bulgarian white cheese), grated
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place the two peppers on an oven safe dish and into the oven. Turn the peppers every fifteen minutes until the skin blisters and turn brownish. Place the peppers into a plastic bag and seal while they cool. If you have a brown paper bag, you could place the peppers into it and shake it while the skin peels off. If you use the plastic bag, once they cool, peel off the skin. Cut them open and rinse the seeds out and cut off the stem. Dice these peppers into half-inch squares. In a large bowl, add the peppers, tomatoes, scallions, onions, olives, and cucumbers. Sprinkle these with salt, mix well with your hands and press down a little so the juices mix too. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, Herbs de Provence, oregano and dash of salt. Mix well with a fork. Pour this over the vegetables. Pour this all onto a platter. Spread the grated feta over the top. Serve.