Nikki Buchanan

When people say they’re “living the dream,” they usually mean it ironically, but not Ahmet and Halida Alisah, the husband-and-wife team behind Chef Alisah’s Restaurant. Through hard work and perseverance, the couple have turned their restaurant, opened shortly after the economic free fall of 2008, into a beloved Tucson staple famous for Bosnian and other European fare — everything from c´evapi to schnitzel to baklava.

It hasn’t been an easy road. The Alisahs came to Tucson with their young son, Emir, in 1998, arriving as Red Cross refugees from war-torn Bosnia, where Ahmet had spent enough time in prison camps to get his teeth, ribs and shoulder broken. But not his spirit. Because he’d grown up in the restaurant business — first at his mother’s cafe in Bosnia, later in hotel and independent restaurants in Germany, Italy and Turkey — Ahmet dreamed of owning his own restaurant. “Food is in my blood,” he says, tapping his arm to illustrate the passion and perfectionism coursing beneath the surface. 

The couple had no money and little understanding of English, so they got creative, selling their homemade Bosnian food at hospitals, office buildings and ballparks as their reputation and bank account grew. When they were finally able to secure a restaurant space, the pair worked 965 days straight — “no Christmas, no Monday off, never, never,” Ahmet says — and their restaurant’s homey, welcoming vibe and soul-satisfying comfort food slowly won people over, as did the wide-ranging menu, which reflects Ahmet’s worldly work experience.

Word spread of a wonderful Bosnian and broader European restaurant doing everything the old-fashioned way: homemade bread, baked fresh daily; tzatziki, thick with sour cream; and an outrageously good sandwich composed of juicy, house-made c´evapi (beef sausage links), chopped raw onion and lepina, Bosnian flatbread brushed with beef broth and butter before landing on the grill. (Now that business is booming, Ahmet cranks out 3,000 c´evapi links every 10 days.)

Halida’s walnut baklava, with 40 layers of phyllo, is another labor-intensive dish that earns raves from the restaurant’s many regulars. Dense and sticky-sweet, it pairs well with hair-raisingly strong Bosnian coffee, poured from a long-handled brass coffee pot called a dzezva — a glimpse into a world most of us have never seen.

Meanwhile, the restaurant’s Bosnian-style goulash is so good, it drew the attention of Guy Fieri, who featured it on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives in 2018. Now the restaurant can’t make enough of the stuff, according to Emir, who is grown up and planning to attend law school. Because his parents do everything themselves, he lends them a hand every day, exhibiting the same work ethic that helped them achieve their American dream.

Business Information

Chef Alisah’s Restaurant
5931 N. Oracle Road
Tucson, AZ
United States