You can find corner markets with innocuous names that offer little indication of their contents all over Denver and its surrounding suburbs. The European Market, for example, is wedged into a strip-mall spot between a nail salon and a dollar-a-scoop Chinese joint in Lakewood. Europe’s a pretty broad category for food; should a customer expect aisles stocked with Wheatabix and Marmite, a cheese counter with odorous French cheese, or perhaps piles of pale German sausages? The sign above the European Market’s door doesn’t give many clues, but at least it promises gourmet sandwiches, salads, sweets and espresso.
To solve the rest of the mystery, you must walk inside, peruse the shelves and, with any luck, chat with one or both of the owners: Iskren Atanasov and Petko Georgiev, two Bulgarians who became friends at college in Washington, D.C., and eventually opened their own market specializing in the foods of their homeland as well as other Slavic regions. After graduation, the two moved to different parts of the U.S.; they reconnected when Georgiev, a native of Sofia, called Atanasov to see if he wanted to join him in a business venture in Colorado. He did, and the two took over the small shop at 1990 Wadsworth Boulevard in early 2016. The previous owner was Bosnian, so the two kept an inventory of Bosnian goods to maintain the market’s existing customer base. But they also added a deli with hot sandwiches, a meat counter with cured sausages from Bulgaria, and a selection of cheeses difficult to find anywhere else in town. You’ll usually find one of the owners at the deli counter, outfitted in a tidy chef’s coat and making sandwiches while calling out guidance to shoppers.
A quick tour of the aisles (there are only three) reveal Balkan snack foods, desserts, strong Turkish coffee, and pantry staples from pastas to grains to cooking oils. Most striking is the selection of ajvar (pronounced aye-var), a Slavic condiment designed to be slathered on bread or served as a side, which owes its vivid red hue to roasted bell peppers. The European Market stocks dozens of brands and styles, ranging from smooth, mild pastes to fiery concoctions bolstered with chile peppers to chunky mixes packed with eggplant, tomato and other vegetables and seasoned with garlic and herbs. According to Atanasov, each town and region has its specialty and preference, so you can usually pinpoint a customer’s place of origin by the brand of ajvar he or she purchases.
Compared with that, the deli menu doesn’t appear unusual or exotic at first, but even familiar sandwiches come with a Bulgarian touch. Atanasov buys his bread daily from a Bulgarian woman who bakes it at home. The prosciutto-basil sandwich starts with a soft, porous roll (similar to a round ciabatta, but with a softer crust) that’s piled with delicate cured ham and soft Bulgarian cheese. Squiggles of reduced balsamic syrup decorate the outside of the sandwich — a messy but deliberate addition that Atanasov says makes for a finger-licking experience.
Mediterranean flavors abound in olive-studded salads, a gyro sandwich and a chicken doner kebab wrap — not an easy thing to find in Denver. But for a real rarity, order the “meat lover’s” sandwich, an innocuously named dish that has its origins in traditional Bulgarian street food. “In Sofia it’s called a princesse,” Atanasov notes, and when he says the word, it sounds more like “prin-chess-ay.” No matter the pronunciation (“meat lover’s” is simple enough), what you’ll end up with is something akin to a mashup of a burger and a French-bread pizza. The same Bulgarian bread, baked into a larger round for this purpose, is topped with a thin layer of seasoned ground beef and cheese before hitting the broiler. In Bulgaria, the beef is mixed with an egg to create a thin, spreadable paste before being cooked, but Georgiev explains that he doesn’t use an egg, so the result is more like an ultra-thin patty. Once cooked, the now-crunchy bread soaks up the fat from the ground beef, giving it the texture of a large bruschetta. A homey, rustic quality comes from the dried herbs sprinkled atop the cheese: That’s chubrica, Atanasov says, an essential element of Bulgarian cooking. It’s actually a Balkan variety of what’s more commonly known as savory, something you see mostly see in the back of Grandma’s pantry, well past its best-by date. Here, though, the herb is far from forgotten and plays a crucial role in transforming the familiar into something new.
At this European Market — or a second outpost, at 10699 Melody Drive in Northglenn, that the pair added late last year — you’ll only need to shell out a few bucks for a sandwich, but prepare to pay extra so that you can side your lunch with a Slovenian soda called Cockta, an herbal soft drink reminiscent of what Coca-Cola might have tasted like a century ago. And be sure to pick up a few extra goodies to take home for a unique appetizer spread: Bulgarian sheep’s-milk cheese (either firm like mozzarella or soft and salty like the best feta you’ve ever had); a jar of ajvar (ask one of the owners for a style to match your tastes); and such sausages as dry-cured lukanka and soft, spreadable liverwurst. For a bigger meal, look in the freezer for savory Bosnian pastries commonly called pita — which aren’t much like Greek pita at all, but rather like flaky, layered spanakopita. The version filled with cheese and spinach is called zeljanica, while the burek comes stuffed with ground beef and onion.
Or just meander through the shop, reading labels and choosing whatever looks unusual and inviting for a snack or an evening meal; it’s a very European thing to do.
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