If you have no idea what a Bulgarian restaurant is supposed to look like, Danube might be exactly what you have in mind, a narrow Westwood storefront equipped with banquettes that are slightly too large for the room, a scattering of folk artifacts nailed to the walls, and a pair of flat-screens playing videos that often involve a fat oboe player and costumed dancers cavorting in the middle of a scruffy field. The customers — families and young couples, grumpy middle-aged men, chic blondes in knockoffs of last season’s Chanel — are unclassifiable, but all look as if they really, really want a cigarette, even the 9-year-olds. The waitresses are pleasant, but you probably wouldn’t want to cross them, lest you and your kebabs get banished to the tiny backroom, which is as cramped and claustrophobia-inducive as a Mercury space capsule.
Even before the establishment of the Tehrangeles neighborhood a couple of decades ago, the stretch of Westwood Boulevard just south of Wilshire has always been home to businesses that didn’t quite fit in anywhere else in Los Angeles — foreign-language bookstores and bric-a-brac dealers, tiny groceries and sparsely populated cafés catering to communities of expat UCLA students. If you want to buy bulk fenugreek, smoke Egyptian tobacco from a hookah, or eat Indian roadhouse food, Westwood Boulevard is probably your destination. If you want to try shkembe chorba, the famous Bulgarian soup of beef tripe and a healthy slug of garlic, Westwood is also where you want to end up. The only other Bulgarian restaurant in the country is 2,400 miles away in New York.
You may think that you’ve seen a lot of this food before, and you’d probably be right. Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for nearly 500 years, sits next to Greece (moussaka is a popular dish at Danube), absorbed influences from both Russia — the inevitable potato salad — and Arab countries (shish kebab, a rather bland hummus and a stodgy, bulgur-rich version of the parsley salad tabbouleh). Nowhere in Los Angeles will you find so many dishes whose effect depends on the tartness of homemade yogurt. Bulgaria is the home of the mish-mash omelet.
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As in Turkey, a Bulgarian meal starts off with a succession of the appetizers called meze — a yogurt dip called “snow white” infused with ground walnuts and cucumber, thin slices of zucchini fried in egg batter, a shopska salad sprinkled with Bulgarian feta cheese, and stuffed grape leaves. Chushka burek, an ?egg-battered pepper stuffed with feta and then fried, is more or less a limp Bulgarian chile relleno. Kyopolu, an oily, dun-colored purée of roast eggplant, red peppers and garlic, is as smoky as an unfiltered Marlboro, ?a level of smokiness that comes with only charcoal-grilled eggplant or heroic doses of liquid smoke.
Unlike neighboring cuisines, Bulgarian cooking depends on huge amounts of pork — grilled pork, roast pork, sautéed pork, pan-fried pork, ground pork, pork enough that one may understand the use of pig as a primary outlet for Bulgarian cultural expression. Danube’s pork chops are magnificent slabs of meat, salted as intensively as ballpark peanuts and grilled crisp. Kebapche are juicy little Bulgarian pork burgers spiced with cumin, even more delicious than the peppery ground-beef kebabs called kufte. Like a respectable chicken Kiev, the pork tenderloin roll stuffed with a gooey mess of canned mushrooms, ham and white cheese spurts a generous dairy geyser when you cut into it. Unless you are set on the stuffed peppers, the fried lamb baked in parchment or the drob sarma, the notoriously funky Bulgarian dish of chopped lamb innards baked under a crust of yogurt and eggs, the pork is the way to go.
But if you are thirsty, you might want to consider bringing your own, because at Danube, you will find no Zagorka beer, no Big Gulps of raw rakia brandy, no beakers of blood-red Balkan wines that could double as industrial solvents. If you have never experienced a Bulgarian meal sober, this is probably not the time to start.
Danube Bulgarian Cuisine, 1303 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 473-2414. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. & 5–10 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $27-$35. Recommended dishes: snow white, pork chops, kebapche.