250 North Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
'Steak as tender as a maiden's dreams," Ted murmurs.
"Who said that?"
"Carnivore's idea of nirvana?" I say.
"Down to a T."
"You mean T-bone, right?"
Ted swings his minivan onto 101. This is his territory these days. North County. Encinitas. We haven't crossed paths for years, but I see the man's still an unrepentant carnivore. "I try to avoid healthy food," he says. "What's the point of eating stuff you hate?"
The maddening thing about Ted is that he always comes in bright-eyed, cherry-cheeked, and yeah, spouting his poet du jour.
"'Hot black coffee/ In a great big cup/ Foaming, steaming/ Filled right up,'" he quotes.
"That where you're taking me, a coffee place?"
A moment later he pulls in front of an old clapboard building that houses two eateries side by side. One's a rice takeout, the other says "Bird House Grill, Turkish Cuisine."
I see where he's going with this. Turkish coffee. Fine. Except that right now I'm hungry enough to eat a...turkey.
We walk inside. It's nice. Butter-cream walls, tables with yellow tablecloths and black chairs, paintings of Istanbul, and a blue-and-white plate collection on the wall. Classy, not stuffy.
Then you notice the eyes. Blue eyes. On the wall, in strings of beads, hanging from the windows. Ah yes. The eye that wards off evil. That's Turkish, all right.
Two women bustle about behind the counter. Looks like a mother-and-daughter team. "Lunch?" says the younger one, Julie.
"No," says Ted. "Just had it."
But he watches Julie set down two bowls of orange soup with a squiggle of red oil in the middle and pepper scattered on top. Very arty.
"Lentil soup, $2.50 for a cup."
It looks more like a bowl.
"Okay, maybe I'll have a soup," Ted says.
"Me too," I say.
We grab menus. It's general Mediterranean fare. Like the gyro, $4.75. But also American: "Philly Cheese Steak. Grilled, thinly-sliced rib eye steak with onions, bell pepper, mushroom, and provolone cheese," $4.99. A "Kofte plate" is more Turkish, a ground-meat kebab with rice pilaf, salad, pita bread, and tzadziki sauce, $7.99. "You pronounce it 'kerfta'" says Julie. The "unique house specialty," Iskender Kebab, comes with lots of tomato sauce and house-grown yogurt. It's $8.99. "'Iskender' means 'Alexander,'" says Julie's mom, Sevgi. "It's named after Alexander the Great." I glance at a $10.49 "Super Combo Plate." Hmm. But then I see "Lunch specials," a gyro plate, kofte plate, and chicken plate. Each $4.75, with those same sides. Hey, no contest.
I go for the kofte plate.
"How about a salad for you?" Julie says to Ted.
"No salad," Ted says.
"What if I made you a grilled chicken salad, with gyro meat too? Same price. $6.99."
"Oh, what the hell."
What Ted gets is this giant bed of greens laden with gyro meat and grilled chicken chunks. Mine is a skewer of tightly packed ground meat on a pile of rice pilaf with a Turkish salad on the side. We're talking lettuce, onion, tomato, olive, and feta. We both get pots of yogurty tzadziki sauce.
My kofte is moist and garlicky and delicious. The Turkish salad is traditional. "We call it çoban salata," Julie says. She pronounces it "chobon." "It means shepherd's salad. That's how it is in the countryside. In the mornings the wife will pile tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, some parsley, oil, and lemon into her husband's bag, and around lunchtime, out with his flock, he will cut them all up and eat it together. That's his meal."
Her mom says, "We make our own yogurt. We call the yogurt you drink ayran ($1.50). Moon drink. 'Ay' means 'moon.' Here, try this."
She hands us a small sample glass with white stuff inside. Ted takes one whiff and hands it to me. I have a taste. Oh wow. Nothing sweet about this. Slightly salty, slightly spoiled-milk taste, and you know what? I like it.
"Drink some of this every day, your stomach will thank you," says Sevgi.
She's about to pick up Ted's plate. "But your salad?" she protests. Ted has eaten all the meat, and not touched one twig of lettuce. "I get my vitamins at the health store," he says.
We end up splitting a baklava ($2.25). It's different than the Greek or Lebanese version, Sevgi says. "We don't use honey or rose water. We use my secret recipe." A second later she spills. "Okay, it's sugar, lemon, and water."
The little logs have chopped pistachio nuts on top and walnuts inside. Sweet, but not too sweet, and not all sticky and gloopy. 'Course now I have to have the Turkish coffee ($2.00), medium-sweet. Ted goes me one better and orders a glass of Turkish tea. No milk, no sugar.
We're down twenty bucks. But it's worth it. Sevgi brings both drinks on a brass tray. My coffee is served in a beautiful little decorated Turkish cup and saucer. Sevgi (her name means "love") says that, traditionally, Turkish men in the hubble-bubble smoking houses would drink it black, but put a sugar cube tucked into their cheek, and filter the coffee through it.
"Oh, and you can bring your own wine in the evenings, and soon we hope to have a license for Turkish wines and beers."
Ted forks up the last of his baklava. He licks his lips.
"'Candy is dandy,'" he burbles, "'but liquor is quicker.'"