Lakewood's European Market Hides a Treasure Trove of Bulgarian Specialties

You can find corner markets with innocuous names that offer little indication of their contents all over Denver and its surrounding suburbs. The European Market, for example, is wedged into a strip-mall spot between a nail salon and a dollar-a-scoop Chinese joint in Lakewood. Europe’s a pretty broad category for food; should a customer expect aisles stocked with Wheatabix and Marmite, a cheese counter with odorous French cheese, or perhaps piles of pale German sausages? The sign above the European Market’s door doesn’t give many clues, but at least it promises gourmet sandwiches, salads, sweets and espresso.

To solve the rest of the mystery, you must walk inside, peruse the shelves and, with any luck, chat with one or both of the owners: Iskren Atanasov and Petko Georgiev, two Bulgarians who became friends at college in Washington, D.C., and eventually opened their own market specializing in the foods of their homeland as well as other Slavic regions. After graduation, the two moved to different parts of the U.S.; they reconnected when Georgiev, a native of Sofia, called Atanasov to see if he wanted to join him in a business venture in Colorado. He did, and the two took over the small shop at 1990 Wadsworth Boulevard in early 2016. The previous owner was Bosnian, so the two kept an inventory of Bosnian goods to maintain the market’s existing customer base. But they also added a deli with hot sandwiches, a meat counter with cured sausages from Bulgaria, and a selection of cheeses difficult to find anywhere else in town. You’ll usually find one of the owners at the deli counter, outfitted in a tidy chef’s coat and making sandwiches while calling out guidance to shoppers.

A quick tour of the aisles (there are only three) reveal Balkan snack foods, desserts, strong Turkish coffee, and pantry staples from pastas to grains to cooking oils. Most striking is the selection of ajvar (pronounced aye-var), a Slavic condiment designed to be slathered on bread or served as a side, which owes its vivid red hue to roasted bell peppers. The European Market stocks dozens of brands and styles, ranging from smooth, mild pastes to fiery concoctions bolstered with chile peppers to chunky mixes packed with eggplant, tomato and other vegetables and seasoned with garlic and herbs. According to Atanasov, each town and region has its specialty and preference, so you can usually pinpoint a customer’s place of origin by the brand of ajvar he or she purchases.