En route to a wedding on the Italian-Slovenian border, I recently found myself in Ljubljana, Slovenia's charming capital city. I sampled many fantastic Slovenian specialties: žlikrofi (zhlee-kro-fi), an agnolotti-esque potato-filled pasta served with lamb ragù; potica (po-teet-sa), a rolled cake filled with walnut paste or, more interestingly, sweetened tarragon; and kranjska klobasa, the local sausage, simmered with whole peppercorns, to name a few. I also had a giant, sloppy horseburger from a restaurant called Hot-Horse. Guess which one of those things this article is about.
Let's make one thing clear from the start: I actively seek out opportunities to consume horsemeat. I would be lying if I said the novelty factor didn't play into it at all. Of course it does! But if I really wanted to eat something "gross" or shocking, it wouldn't be horse. Or not in burger form, at least.
By now, after a series of positive horse experiences, there's really nothing too extreme about normative cuts of horse for me, and there shouldn't be for most omnivores. At the end of the day, it's nice as a meat-eater to take a fork and knife to something besides chicken, pork, beef, veal, lamb, duck, goose, or venison, for once.
Though Hot-Horse now has three locations, the original is situated in gorgeous Tivoli Park. It's a highly popular, well-designed shack, and by all accounts a Ljubljana institution. As the story goes, owner Jure Ažman fell in love with a horse-butcher's daughter, married her, and had the idea for Hot-Horse, which he opened in 1995.
If ever a restaurant "does exactly what it says on the tin," it's this one. The eatery specializes in what can only be characterized as huge, dripping, hot hunks of 100 percent Slovenian horse, sandwiched in an almost comically large bun with a variety of available condiments. One of the kiosk's distinguishing factors is its ordering system, which is through an automat next to the window where a live human prepares your meal. The automat prompts you to select from options including a horseburger, some sort of horseburger combo meal with fries, horse in a tortilla, and the actual "hot-horse," which is a horsemeat hot dog. There is also something that translates as "juicy colt strips."
Then there's the glorious embarrassment of available toppings, the most interesting of which is the ajvar (eye-vahr), a mildly spicy red pepper spread popular throughout the Balkans. I got the ajvar with mayo, thinly sliced onions, lettuce, and tomato. Pretty classic. I watched as the human pulled my large-yet-thin horseburger out of some murky horsewater and put it on the griddle. Then I said two really important words to him: "more ajvar."
Ajvar and mayo turned out to be a great combo, the two fusing together into a creamy, zesty, singular dressing. The onions were just right, the tomato was passable, and the lettuce actually looked the way lettuce looks in McDonald's ads. And what of the horse? I'm not here to tell lies—this horse in particular, while delicious, did not taste discernibly different from beef. Because the patty was thin, it wasn't rare, medium-rare, or even overcooked, it just was what it was—that style of burger is never going to really stand out. The meat was chewy, though not in a bad way, and the seasoning was on-point. I didn't get any fries (though Jeffrey Steingarten famously wrote that the best fries he ever ate were cooked in horse fat), but I did get a bottle of water sporting a Hot Horse label. They serve beer, but who doesn't want to drink from a bottle that screams "HORSE"?
Of course, you're probably wondering why it is that a horsemeat fast food mini-chain can prosper in Ljubljana, and why are Slovenians so allured by the promise of these sloppy, absolutely dripping, hot horsemeat burgers? I got on the horn with Matej Pogačnik, Hot-Horse's franchise manager and marketing director. "If I look at a traditional Slovenian [cook]book, there [are] actually [no recipes]…that would have horsemeat," he told me, but noted that horsemeat is consumed in Slovenia. When Hot-Horse first opened, he said, eating horse was "not strange, like it is in the Western countries, but not popular."
Back in 1995, the restaurant closed by 10 PM, but a turning point came when they were eventually allowed to stay open into the night. As their customer base expanded to include drunken Ljubljanans and those looking for late night options, Hot-Horse really took off. Those who were perhaps skeptical of horseburgers during the day threw caution to the wind at night, and got on board with the concept. Pogačnik thinks Hot-Horse has done a lot to popularize horsemeat consumption, as the burgers can be a gateway to enjoying other preparations of horse. And, as you'll learn if you spend some time on Hot-Horse's online horse portal, horsemeat is rich in iron, high in protein, and low in fat.
At the beginning, and until relatively recently, the meat was all sourced from Mesarstvo Krušič, the horse butchery that started it all. But as Hot-Horse grew in popularity, it became necessary for the company to hire their own butchers; of which they now employ three. But, Pogačnik said, there are no hard feelings with Mesarstvo Krušič, which is still in the same family. And furthermore, he added, they do a nice horsemeat mortadella.