Sunday, November 28, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

The ebb and flow of the family restaurant


Pushing and shoving each other, we make our way over from St. Mary’s School in Iowa City, through the back screen door off an alley from Linn Street, and into the kitchen at Hamburg Inn No. 2. Boxes are stacked along the far wall, full of large tin cans of fruit cocktail and green beans. The grill sits to one side, hot and spitting. Further over in the back is my friend’s dad, in a white apron, putting away hamburger buns. And not too far away, his wife takes orders out in the narrow alley running between the counters and the bar stool. Fritz and Fran Panther, the mom and pop of this mom-and-pop operation, working hard.

Two burgers are quickly plopped on the grill. Mike, their son and my buddy, works the spatula. In no time, we sit on boxes in the back of this family-run business, eating our burgers. The edges of our mouths greased. A simple pleasure.

It was 1966.

Years pass.

Mike Panther is killed by a drunk driver.

Prep Iowa

Fritz and Fran Panther die some years ago.

Dave Panther, who bought Hamburg Inn No. 2 from his parents and made it nationally famous, announced last week that he is retiring, selling the diner.

And the memories? They will disappear like the last drops of a chocolate malt.joes1 3.10

The twenty-something kid runs the front of the restaurant on Merle Hay Road. Personable, easy smile, quick and sure movements. He waits tables, prepares carryouts and makes it all run smoothly. His mother and father are in the back. Bent over working the phyllo dough or dishing out tomatoes and cucumbers for gyros. Heads down.

“I was born in November of 1991, in Bosnia, near the town of Vlasenica, close to the border of Serbia.”

Alex Ademovic talks to me during a quiet moment at his folk’s family restaurant, while at the same time keeping an eye on customers. His birth is significant. By 1992, Bosnia was at war, and where they lived was particularly dangerous.

“In 1992, we had the chance to escape to Slovenia. We got lucky. We managed to get out. There was a war in Slovenia, but it quieted down soon after we arrived.”

Thus began the many-year journey of the Ademovic family around the Balkans, looking for safety and work, which ultimately ended in Des Moines in 2002. But before coming to the U.S., Alex’s father, Adil Ademovic, became a baker. And what does a Bosnian baker bake? Burek, of course.

“There is a lot of different definitions of burek. It’s found in Turkey, it’s found in Ukraine, it’s found in the Balkans. Burek is a pastry made of phyllo dough, it is savory, and it is filled with either meat or cheese or cheese and spinach. It is eaten by itself as a meal.”

Alex Ademovic shows me a large burek pie, steaming hot, and smelling of crispy dough and cheese. I am in heaven.

Back in 2002, his mother and father arrived in Des Moines with nothing except Alex and his brother. They made a life.

“My parents both started working wherever they could. They built up over time. Eventually, they were able to buy a car. And after a while, they got their first house and their first mortgage.”

But his father was not ready to leave his baker days.

“My dad wanted to start something of his own. My dad started doing the burek, just the big pies. He started doing them out of his garage. He built himself up over time.”

And three years ago, he opened Burek at Merle Hay and Urbandale Avenue with his wife Senada. Selling, of course, his famous burek, along with Greek and Bosnian gyros.

“This is a lot of work. A lot of hours. Especially if you’re trying to keep this as a family business. They’re doing all the cooking. Everything. But with the work comes a financial safety net. And they’ve provided for me and my wife and son. I’m here almost 50 hours a week. But it’s all family.”

joes2 3.10Alex smiles a big smile. Satisfied. Happy for this opportunity.

“We can’t complain. We work. Iowa has treated us good.”

More customers are filling up the restaurant. Alex must leave. He looks at me one more time.

“It’s going good, man. I’m grateful.” And he laughs the confident laugh of a young man.

I sit and watch the family hustling. They pull as one team. Even the customer feels part of the process, part of the family. Without a doubt, we’re all in it together. We’re all important to its success. And we all reap the rewards.

And the new memories? They are being built like layers of burek, one on top of the other.

And so it goes — the ebb and the flow of the family restaurant. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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