BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
It’s been known to stop even vegetarians in their tracks. A faint, tantalizing whiff of something good on the grill that gets stronger as you stroll the downtown Square on a breezy evening. Even if you aren’t hungry when you catch it, or if you were thinking of maybe a nice plate of pasta for dinner, or a big green salad, when the mouthwatering scent of sizzling steak wafts your way you are helpless, like a sailor in the grip of the Sirens’ call, to do anything but turn the corner and head to Janko’s Little Zagreb.
The place is not much to look at—the building has stood at the corner of West 6th Street and Morton since 1916 and has done turns as a feed store, a bar, and a brothel before being opened as the Choo-Chew Café in 1972 by Jeff Pouch, brother to the late John, a.k.a. Janko, who later joined him in the business and renamed the restaurant Little Zagreb in 1979. Specializing in the unlikely combination of huge steaks and Yugoslavian cuisine (courtesy of their Croatian grandmother), Zagreb quickly became a Bloomington tradition, a go-to place to queue up for a meal before or after a game and a mecca for returning alums.
Today the Zagreb tradition continues under the ownership of Mark Conlin, Janko’s longtime friend and manager. The ambience is the same—the red-checkered tablecloths, the IU posters on the walls, and the wax paper packets of silverware that grace the tables. But, more important, so are the steaks and the spicy barbequed ribs and the fiery Bucharest meatballs and even the Palidzan-Sa-Sirom (a Yugoslavian eggplant casserole with tomatoes and cheese.) There are a few additional menu items—grilled Maple Leaf Farm duck breast, a tuna filet, a giant lobster tail, and Alaskan king crab legs—but the essence of the place is unchanged.
And the essence is still steak. Steaks at Zagreb are legendary—thick-cut and delicious, seared on the outside and cooked to a savory, juicy turn inside. Some have imagined, over the years, that the secret is in the sourcing of the meat, but there are no answers there. Zagreb’s meat comes from the usual food services, with some specialty cuts ordered from Kroger. And the seasoning is nothing exotic—just garlic, salt, and pepper. So what makes their steaks taste so unusually good?
Conlin laughs at the question, but acknowledges that there is something of a mystery at work because when he cooks the exact same steaks at home, they don’t measure up. He thinks that the grill is the key. “We call it our magic grill,” he says, noting that its more than 25 years of use have seasoned it like a much-loved, cast-iron pan.
Whatever the cause, Zagreb’s steaks are something special. And in a state that loves its large chain steakhouses the way Indiana does, the fact that this small independent steakhouse is thriving after a quarter of a century is some kind of magic indeed.