Ilija’s Place Brings Serbian Touch to Cudahy
Warm service, hearty food in quiet setting
Ilija’s Place is located in a quiet residential neighborhood away from the factories of Cudahy. It is easy to pass by this plain, red brick building with dark windows, though a neon sign and ornamental ironwork around the entryway promise something special. And, indeed, the interior is a different world. Ilija’s Place belongs to Ilija Zoric and his family, and the restaurant is devoted to their native Serbia.
A cozy bar, a few tables and a fireplace occupy the front room, which is designated as the smoking area. The rest of the tables can be reached by climbing a few steps past burgundy draperies. Charming bric-a-brac is everywhere, from hand-woven kilims to oil paintings and even a cluster of guitars. Service is warm and friendly, especially for regular customers.
The menu features many items found at other local Serbian establishments, including sarma (stuffed cabbage), veal paprikash and a host of sausages. More unusual are dishes of sweetbreads and breaded veal brain. Then there is schnitzel a la Karadjordje, stuffed with prosciutto and cheese, and a Friday special of venison goulash. The only item missing is burek.
Meals start with a basket of fresh bread and side dishes of ajvar and kajmek. Ajvar is a spread of sweet red peppers and eggplant; kajmek is a homemade cheese spread that is almost buttery in texture. Be sure to eat these sparingly, however, as the entrees are quite large.
Chevapchichi ($16.50)—just call them chevaps—are homemade sau sages that arrive on a platter. The skinless sausages have a springy texture and an excellent flavor with just a hint of char from the grill. Slices of tomato and raw onion accompany the dish. One item is even better than the chevaps, though it is only served on Fridays: venison goulash ($19.50). The process to make this entree includes a weeklong marinade in red wine, as the wine removes any gamy flavor in the venison. This truly superb goulash is served over noodles.
The menu also features ossobuco ($19.50) and lamb shank ($18.50). A recent visit found the ossobuco veal shank unavailable, but the latter on hand. The slow-cooked lamb was not tough, though the flesh was firm, almost hard. The braised sweet red peppers and onions do their best to make the lamb shank worth another try. Sarma ($16.95), a Serbian tradition, is stuffed cabbage leaves filled with bits of smoked pork and rice. The ones here are very good and disappear quickly.
Most entrees include potatoes and vegetables. The potatoes are all worthy, whether simply peeled and baked with the juices from the sarma or just mashed with a bit of butter. The vegetables could be a mix of steamed broccoli with cauliflower or string beans that have been cooked for quite a while. Either way, they still retain some flavor.
The lunch menu is almost as large as dinner—and prices drop nearly in half. Even then they include potato, vegetable and soup or house salad. Soups change daily. They are decent—a hearty white bean soup was particularly noteworthy. The house salads consist of iceberg lettuce with some tomato. The cheese changes with the whims of the kitchen—crumbled feta or a milder grated white. Consider ordering a different salad, like the Serbian tomato ($3.50). This is mostly fresh tomato with some chopped green pepper and onion with the same light vinaigrette. Both cheeses are used to good effect on this salad.
Ilija’s is a quiet little place that is perfect for out-of-town visitors (unless they are vegetarians or light eaters). The service has warmth, the setting is cozy and the Serbian fare has a satisfying heartiness. Plan for a leisurely pace, although lunches in less than an hour are easily possible. Also remember to visit on a Friday for the venison goulash.
Ilija’s Place 3701 E. Squire Ave., Cudahy (414) 727-5885 $$ Credit Cards: MC, VS Smoking: Yes
Photo by Don Rask