Alisah's Story

A Bosnian chef comes to the U.S. as a refugee and finds the American dream

I am a meat-and-potatoes kind of girl. My dad made roast beef and mashed potatoes every Sunday when I was growing up, and in my freshman English class, I wrote 15 pages about the unifying qualities of a big bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Well, chef Ahmet Alisah is providing new ways to nourish my meat-and-potato cravings. When I described his food to my friends, I told them it was the kind of food you never knew existed, but always wished your mother would make.

You know, if your mother were a 53-year-old Bosnian man named Ahmet Alisah.

But it wasn't just the food that got me. The atmosphere of the restaurant, although seemingly sparse, encourages bonding through the simple act of eating.

The first time I met Alisah, he was smoking a cigarette on the patio of his restaurant with friends, laughing and talking in the gruff, flowing cadences of their native Bosnian.

Alisah, originally from Travnik, Bosnia, received his culinary training from his mother. He worked in her small restaurant for several years starting at 18, mastering the few dishes served there, he said. But before long, his talent outgrew the tiny traditional eatery.

"All my life, I am in the kitchen," Alisah said.

He laid aside the cigarette to usher my group inside, explaining the specials and getting us waters and sodas, and handing us menus. He highly recommended the evapi, or Bosnian sausages.

"evapi are most popular in Bosnia," Alisah said. "Everybody knows what it is."

Apparently, the sausages are gaining popularity here in Tucson, too, because Alisah is making about 4,000 a week, he said.

At first, the purple-and-silver décor inside Chef Alisah's Restaurant seemed cold, even unfriendly. But other groups sitting near us were all laughing and talking, and after being served, my friends and I indulged in the conversation, allowing ourselves to connect through the food.

Alisah moved on from his mother's restaurant to cook traditional fare throughout Europe, in countries such as Germany, Italy and Turkey. He cooked in restaurants and hotels, picking up their native languages like souvenirs.

Alisah later returned to Bosnia, but the country had changed. The economy had tanked, and the country had become a war zone. Alisah himself was imprisoned for two years, he said. Upon his release, he and his family attempted to flee the country as refugees.

"The gentleman said, 'Tucson,'" Alisah said. "We had no choice."

In 1998, Alisah and his family arrived in the desert.

"In the United States, I started a new life with my family," Alisah said. "I like the United States. Europe is nice, but now, my life is here, and I love it."

Alisah looked to fulfill his own version of the American dream when he began a catering business. He and his wife brought their family-friendly dining experience to police stations and hospitals.

"Finally, I open this space, because everybody was telling me to open up a restaurant," he said.

The restaurant seems large to me; I couldn't imagine it filled with people all hoping to try the latest craze in Bosnian cuisine. However, it does happen. Every other Wednesday evening, there is a line out the door, Alisah said.

For the every-other-Wednesday night special, he roasts seven lambs and at least 300 pounds of potatoes for an event that is gaining in popularity.

"Six months ago, I started making the lamb dinner. Now, a minimum 100 people make reservations," Alisah said. "Nobody in town makes a whole lamb, because it is very hard."

I noticed most of the dishes on the regular menu revolve around meat (meatballs, hamburger, beef and lamb cubes, and more), with rice or beans as a side. The white beans that come with the lamb dishes were huge—they looked like lima beans on growth hormones.

"If somebody just tries (my food) one time, I have no worries, because my menu is very rich, very fresh and not expensive," Alisah said.

Every dish comes with bread—a dense, flavorful white version. Alisah's wife, Halida, makes it fresh daily.

"My wife is my right hand," Alisah said. "She makes a lot of food I can't make. ... She makes the best baklava in the whole world."

Alisah and his wife have dedicated their lives to this business, working up to 17 hours a day. Their 14-year-old son, Emir, can often be found eating inside the restaurant or kicking around a soccer ball in the parking lot.

"(Emir) is a very hard worker, but, you know, he is a teenager," Alisah said. "What's important is he likes food."

The family venture, Alisah assured me, has been successful. Alisah even hinted at the possibility of another location.

"This kitchen, this food—it's in my heart," Alisah said.

When Alisah was interviewed three weeks after the opening of the restaurant by Tucson Citizen writer Tom Stauffer, Alisah was asked if he was crazy for opening a restaurant in a declining economy.

His reply?

"Just you wait, my friend."

Well, if the Wednesday-night crowds are any indication, the wait is over—as long as you make a reservation.