Headed to Istanbul? This is the first in a something-part series (three? four? depends how many baklava stops I include) of places to eat, drink and explore in Istanbul, where I used to live and recently went back to visit.
My first lunch in Istanbul was meatballs. It was in 2007 and I was there by myself for vacation. A family friend offered to show me around on my first day, so I met her at a restaurant in Sultanahmet, across from the Blue Mosque and its six towering minarets, just down the street from Hagia Sophia’s dawn-colored walls. What I remember most vividly about that meal was the pile of white bread on the table, the starkness of the meatballs alone on a white plate, and the way she took a swig of ayran, a cold yogurt drink commonly drunk with meat-heavy meals, and said, “this stuff is great— kills all the bugs.” I looked at the tables around me, filled with people devouring their meatballs and gulping down glasses of white yogurt, and thought, must be some good bugs.
There I began my love affair with lamb, the Turkish grill, and kebabs. I know, it’s an intoxicating little triangle. I ended up getting a job that year in Turkey, so my three week vacation turned into a yearlong stay. I can’t recount all the meat I ate, but I can tell you about the three places I visited when I went back for vacation last month:
Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebabi
On my way home from the bars at night I usually ate a doner at the top of Taksim square, in the center of Istanbul. This hub of meat stands lures all walks of life to their cash registers with the sweet aroma of vertical lamb spits, and as a tipsy 24-year-old on my way home, I thanked my lucky stars for its convenience. However, had I known about Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebabi in the Sultanahment area, I may have taken the long route back to my apartment. Cağ kebab is a type of doner that originated in the eastern Anatolian province of Erzurum, differentiating itself by roatating on a horizontal spit (versus a vertical one). Thin bite-sized slices of lamb are tenderly carved off the outer edges onto a skewer and placed on a plate with a charred green pepper and a soft white, almost sheer lavash bread. There are only a few things on the menu here and we had them all: A deep purple splash of sumac covers a plate of onions and cilantro; ezme, a tomato and walnut paste with a kick; a shepard’s salad; and mercimek, a hearty red lentil soup that was salted perfectly (elsewhere it was disappointingly bland). Our vegetarian friend ordered the buffalo milk yogurt, which was one of the freshest tasting yogurts I’ve ever had. For all this, we each paid about $12. Sitting outside on this small street just off the Sirkeci tram stop was a glimpse into the hustle of Istanbul— My eyes kept following the owner as he paced up and down the restaurant, yelling orders and shaking hands, until they eventually landed on a young man in a business suit. I watched as he ordered one portion of meat, wrapped it into lavash and threw some onions in, inhaled it, ordered another one, inhaled it, glanced at his watch, looked out at the busy street, and signaled the waiter with his forefinger to bring him one more.
Gaziantep Burc Ocakbasi
Shopping is hard, right? Shopping in the Grand Bazaar, where giant carpets rest their backs on the walls like old men on a corner, and where piles of cashmere scarves meet passages of ottoman antiques and shiny messes of copper pots, is exhilarating and exhausting. A good place to eat and make very few decisions is essential. I actually do remember five years prior when my scarf hookup told me that I looked a little weary and that I should to go to a kebab restaurant in a quiet alleyway around the corner, but I was so tired and so weighed down by my uzbeki textiles that I couldn’t be bothered to find it. I think this must have been it.
Burc Kepab is in a small passageway filled with wooden stools and blue and white checkered tablecloths. The grill, glowing under an ornate copper hood, sits in the middle of the restaurant, while cooks plating durums and baskets of fresh pita hover around it. We had the adana kebab, a long minced lamb skewer mixed with spices, served over lavash, and surrounded by eggplant and red pepper dolmas (we ordered a portion). I always wanted to love stuffed peppers and eggplants, but they were usually covered in grease or the rice filling was dry and bland. But these dolmas were meaty, moist, and flavorful. Don’t skimp on them.
This is the restaurant where I ate my first lunch in Istanbul, where trays of kofte (meatballs) come at rapid speed through the dining room, where there are grills on the first and second floor, and where there are only four basic menu items: meat, soup, salad, and rice— and they’re all tasty. What I love about kofte is that there’s no fuss surrounding them: no pasta, no sauce, no parmesean. Not that there isn’t a place for all that, but sometimes you just want the meat in a neat little pile, all to yourself with no distractions. These aren’t the best kofte in town, but this is one of the few places in Sultanahment that’s not just for tourists— it’s for Turkish families and workers that live in Istanbul… and the occasional Bay Area girl that decides to stick around.
Got the travel bug?
Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebabi- Hocapasa Sok. 3/A, Near the Sirkeci tram stop. A good stop before or after Sultanahment (about a 10 minute walk).
Gaziantep Burc Ocakbasi -Parçacilar Sokak 12. Just ask for it when in the Grand Bazaar.
Sultanahmet Koftesi- Divan Yolu Caddesi, No: 12. You can also just ask for this in Sultanahment, everyone will know it.