Tucked away on the north side of town lies a hidden gem filled with the wonders of tantalizing tastes and Ahmet Alisah—often with a cigarette between his lips and hot cappuccino just an arm's length away. His gruff Bosnian accent echos off the walls of the plaza as he speaks with a friend in his native tongue.
Named after its head chef and owner, Chef Alisah's is the only place in Tucson that serves up homemade, traditional Bosnian delicacies.
If you haven't tried traditional Bosnian food imagine a cuisine with a mix between Eastern and Western influences. Much of the food has ties to Yugoslavian, Greek and Middle Eastern food and can basically be summed up in meat, dairy and bread. It's a type of cuisine that you can't necessarily describe, but once you take a bite you'll never forget.
The restaurant is simple. A square room filled with a few tables cloaked in cool purple tablecloths, photos of dreamy cities in Bosnia cover the walls and ethnic music plays softly in the background. It's nothing fancy or gaudy, nor does it need to be, the food speaks for itself and so does its chef.
It was over three decades ago when Alisah first discovered his love for cooking food. At the time, he was working in a kitchen with his mother as a 20-year-old learning the ropes of culinary craftsmanship. He gave his mother a taste of his homemade cevapi, a traditional sausage dish and a Bosnian staple. She smiled and told her son it was unlike any Bosnian sausage she had had before.
"She told me: 'Oh my son, this is excellent. It's impossible how you do this,'" Alisah said.
That was it. In the small town of Travnik, he found out he had a great talent for cooking. What started out as a way to help his mother, quickly turned into a fierce passion that would make for a life-long career.
Travnik was also the place where he met his wife and business partner, Halida — the two have been together 35 years. Really, the business wouldn't work without the partnership between the two, given the fact that they are the only chefs preparing food for the entire restaurant.
Their story together also started in Travnik, the place Halida, too, calls home. Today they are a strong business couple who rely on each other to make the restaurant work.
"Without him, I don't see that I can handle the restaurant," Halida said. "I think the same would be for his answer. We just try to help each other."
They traveled across Europe to Germany and Italy for a decade working in various kitchens and with local cuisines. When he returned to Bosnia, the civil war broke out, so the couple and their young son Emir, who is now 20-years-old, packed up, got their visas and set out for the U.S.
"After the war, every thing was just destroyed and you could not find a job to just be able to feed your kids," Halida said. "So, he waited for the visa to come here and we came as refugee."
In 1998, the three landed in Tucson but starting up a restaurant was no easy task. They both worked for a decade before the grand opening of their Bosnian food paradise in 2008. Alisah made sure to keep cooking as a career — he catered for various events across town with his homemade recipes, while Halida took a housekeeping job and then a managerial position at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.
When they opened their restaurant it was in the middle of the Great Recession. It was an economic downturn that struck businesses all across Tucson. Some thought the couple were crazy. but Alisah said he was ready and determined—it was his life's dream and opening had to be now or never.
It was a rough two years for the family, paying rent for the space became difficult but it didn't stop the two from making sure the food they serve is nothing less than excellent. For Alisah, that's one of the driving forces that make the food so good and the business great.
"It's not enough for someone to make good lunch and dinner," Alisah said. "It must be excellent in order to take money from customers and make business."
The dishes might be traditional Bosnian, but all of the recipes that come out of Alisah's kitchen are original. Both of them recognize that when it comes to finding other hands to help in the kitchen, the food won't be the same even if they enlist the help of their son, a UA pre-med student said he has school on his mind rather than taking over the shop someday.
"Nobody can make a copy of my dish," Alisah said. "... If I can stay on my leg, I stay in kitchen. ... I do this with my heart. ... Food is in my blood."