At once familiar and exotic, Etobicoke’s Royal Meats Barbecue puts a Slavic spin on an American classic.
Consider the burger boom of the past decade, and all it brought us. You have your flattop purists and your hip diners, the beloved chains (both new and true) and truffle-stuffed gourmet headline catchers, each with their loyal defenders and fierce haters. But within this crowded field, few can match the sheer heft of the Royal Burger—a full-pound patty half the size of a steering wheel that, when loaded with toppings, requires two hands to hoist.
Aside from its formidable size, it’s the makeup of the signature burger at southwest Etobicoke’s Royal Meats Barbecue that sets it apart from the pack. In an all-beef town, this one’s a mix of marbled veal and pork. And while lettuce, tomato and other standard condiments are offered, each sloppy burger is topped with a sizeable shmear of house sauce made from roasted red peppers and a salty goat cheese similar to feta, as well as another one made with cream cheese.
While Royal Meats outwardly appears to be a standard burger joint, with its flat-screen menus and teenaged cashiers, there are subtle hints of something exotic poking through the veneer. It hangs in the air, in a mishmash of Balkan dialects chatting at the cash; in the parking lot, where flags from Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and Croatia adorn bumper stickers; and in the softly pumping, vaguely European dance music that fills the patio. Neither a traditional ethnic restaurant nor a standard burger joint, Royal Meats Barbecue straddles the line between the two.
“We have excellent food in the Balkans,” says the restaurant’s owner, Mario Ostojic, “but, in Toronto, we’re living in a multicultural city where we need to hit everybody, not just a place where people come because they miss the food from home.”
Ostojic was born in the former Yugoslavia. His father, Ante, a Serbian butcher who had cut meat since the age of 14, realized the family had no future there when civil war broke out in 1991. Ostojic’s mother, Lucija, was Croatian, and mixed families were a red flag amid the ethnic bloodletting that tore apart the region. In 1993, the family moved to Toronto, and a few years later, Ante opened his Yugoslav-style butcher shop in Mississauga, serving an immigrant population from the now “former Yugoslavia” that quadrupled because of the war, as well as Etobicoke’s long-established East European communities. In 2007, looking to expand the family business, Ostojic opened the barbecue restaurant in an old doughnut shop, grilling his father’s meats and putting them in sandwiches.
Royal Meats Barbecue is representative of the Canadian immigrant restaurant story: the food of one country, melded with that of another, served in a setting that makes the most financial sense, and held together by hard work and raw ambition. The space is modern, sleek and primed for expansion. There are no flags on the walls, no Balkan music (“I’d drive people away,” jokes Ostojic), no sense of elsewhere here. But the branding is ambitious, with its crown-topped R logo adorning every surface (some call the place a “Serbian McDonald’s”), and the flavours remain wholly original.
The chevaps—sausage-shaped meatballs made of pork and veal and seasoned only with salt and pepper—come, like all dishes here, on Lepinya, a large, flat bun that’s somewhat doughy. They’re a standout, along with the foot-long, coarsely ground, snappy smoked pork and veal sausage, which is cut into three and glistens with red grease. There are more standard grill offerings here—chicken breasts, steak, pork chops and kebabs—but it’s the Balkan fare that makes Royal Meats a destination in this industrial suburb.
One item on the menu that leaves the biggest impact (in every possible sense) is the Royal Cannon, the rebranded name for the traditional Serbian dish karadordeva, a rolled pork or chicken schnitzel stuffed with kajmak (a sweet cream cheese spread), that is breaded and deep fried. It’s something you’d expect to find at the Ex: a mix of greasy meat and cheese that’s an audition tape away from nabbing a Food Network special, or at least an event on the competitive-eating circuit.
When Royal Meats Barbecue opened, maybe four in five of the restaurant’s customers had roots in the Balkans. Four years later, those numbers have flipped entirely, a fact that Ostojic is especially proud of.
“People don’t come in here because they heard about Serbian cuisine,” he says. “I’m not hiding our origins, but it’s all Canadian made. I’m Canadian, my family’s Canadian. Sure, every food we have here has some sort of background, but it’s still Canadian. My country of birth does not own this place, my descent does not own this place. I’m just trying to be accepting of everyone,” he says. “I don’t like ethnicizing.”