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Serbian Americana

Photo by Anne Fishbein

AT FIRST AND MAYBE EVEN second glance, Metro Café might be one of the least promising restaurants in Los Angeles, a faux-’50s diner attached to a stucco chain motel in Culver City; its sign a glowing replica, its roster of milk shakes and turkeyburgers undistinguished. If you were staying at the motel, you might stop by for your morning omelet. If you were an underachieving screenwriter, you might nurse your double lattes at an outside table, dreaming of the day when you could afford to move on to Hugo’s instead. Metro Café is less than a block from the modest but proven pleasures of Tito’s Tacos and Johnnie’s French Dip Pastrami, about a mile from some pretty good Oaxacan food, but you could drive by the place a thousand times without slowing.

“Why am I here?” asked Laurie W., looking warily at the laminated menu. “Did I need to drive all the way from Silver Lake to get a tofu scramble?”

After a few minutes at Metro Café, you begin to notice the odd things, the Iraqi dinar note stuck behind the register in the spot where you might expect to see the restaurant’s lucky first dollar, the abstracted carnival posters thumbtacked to the walls, the worn stack of magazines on the counter whose headlines scream in Cyrillic block letters. A pretty high percentage of the customers will probably be talking to each other in one Slavic language or another, and the dreamy-eyed young guys who own the place, Aleksander Mojovic (the short-haired one, they call him Aleks) and Sasa Stankovic, will probably be crashed out in chairs, flirting, arguing, flirting, drinking tea, flirting — although Aleks and Sasa also wait the tables, man the cash register and seem to do most of the cooking.

You may also notice that the strange, fragrant dishes everybody seems to be eating bear little resemblance to the food listed on the menu; youmay also notice that Metro Café is basically an informal Serbian restaurant disguised as an American diner, or an American diner that sometimes serves a Serbian dish or two, or at least something close enough to a Serbian dish to keep Aleks and Sasa from slitting their wrists in boredom. The last restaurant they opened was a Taiwanese joint, the Sawtelle boba parlor Relaxstation, and they did the cooking there too.

“Have I done something to displease you?” Sasa asks my friend Anne, cocking his head like a naughty spaniel. It is all so very Everything Is Illuminated, if you know what I mean.

On Tuesdays, the guys make a big pot of Serbian white-bean soup, flavored with ham imported from a European deli in Santa Monica, differing from a pot of Kentucky white-bean soup less in execution than in intent, but smoky and thick and gooey as okra gumbo; and Aleks and Sasa apologize when it runs out, which it usually does by Wednesday evening. Sometimes there is carrot-ginger soup instead, not creamy and smooth like most other versions in town but cooked in sort of an anti–juice bar spirit, very coarsely puréed, with crunchy bits of ginger hot under your teeth.

If somebody has remembered to go to the store, there may be spareribs grilled with lots of garlic, or a grilled trout, nothing fancy, but crisp-skinned and glazed with salt, head on or off as you prefer, plopped on a bed of garlicky greens. Maybe there will be sarma, a mixture of chopped meat and rice wrapped in capsules made of collard greens, or a heap of long-braised pork shoulder that again splits the difference between Serbia and Kentucky. There will probably be a few rings of briefly sautéed onion and a bit of fresh carrot along with the dish. There will definitely be mashed potatoes, the real stuff, with a grainy, half-lumpy consistency you may associate with the one elderly aunt who can’t be bothered to whip her potatoes — not coincidentally, the one elderly aunt whose potatoes you really like. If the guys are feeling charitable, there may be crepes for dessert, special, secret crepes stuffed with Nutella and raspberry jam.

“Why do I not call this a Serb restaurant?” Aleks said one day.

He gestured toward a table of men on the other side of the window, stocky guys who smoke so ferociously that it seems as if they are inhaling three cigarettes at a time. One of them catches his eye and scowls.

“If we are a Serb restaurant,” he says, “these are our customers.”

Metro Café, 11188 Washington Place, Culver City, (310) 559-6821. Breakfast and lunch 7 a.m.–3 p.m.; dinner 6–10 p.m. No alcohol. Parking in Travelodge lot. AE, MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12–$24.

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