131 Jamacha Road, El Cajon
The missus had decided on the destination for our yearly vacation: it was to be Greece. From a little kernel of an idea in my wife’s head comes a locale, in this case Athens, along with an additional requirement: “I also want to visit one of the islands.” She is the idea person — I make it happen. Still, as wonderful as the thought of a month in Greece was, I wanted more. I just didn’t know what. Then, right around when we (actually, me) started making plans for our trip, I received an email from KenB, a source of great recommendations over the years. This was for a shop I’d driven past several times when it was a bakery called Sultan Baklava. The folks at Sultan had apparently taken over the empty restaurant next door and were now Sultan Kebab and Baklava. What was even more fascinating was that the place served up Turkish food. The menu didn’t stick solely to the usual kebabs, but had items like saksuka, lahmacun, pide, and acili ezme on the menu. A few visits later and my wife and I had added a visit to Turkey to our itinerary.
After sampling dishes in places like Istanbul, Antalya, Selcuk, and Goreme, we returned to San Diego impressed with the offerings at Sultan. Several items, such as the ubiquitous lahmacun, a thin flatbread topped with a spicy mixed meat, was every bit as good in El Cajon as it had been in Istanbul. The lahmacun is thin, crisp but foldable, like a slice of New York–style pizza — all that’s missing from the version at Sultan is the plate of greens served with it in Turkey. Priced at $3, it’s a bargain.
There are several traditional mezeler (appetizers) that measure favorably with those we enjoyed in Turkey, as well. The ezme acili, with a tomato-based dip called antepezme, is spicy yet refreshing. Saksuka, a chunky meze made with tomato, roasted potato, onion, and eggplant, is another favorite. There are usually two types of patlican salatasi, mashed eggplant, better known as Baba ghanoush. And, sometimes, novel mezes, a feta-cheese-and-herb mixture, or, once, a refried-bean creation — the fragrance of cumin permeating the thick potage — surprised us both. The selection varies, but there’s always hummus, perhaps too strong in the sesame-paste department (but a favorite of my friend Jenne), and haydari, strained yogurt dip, a staple of Turkish cuisine. You can get small orders of various mezeler for four bucks, or make like the missus, who walks up to the counter and selects a combination for $10. All of this comes with lavas (lavash) the size of a hubcap, freshly baked on the premises in a refractory oven. Nothing like warm bread wrapped around your favorite mezeler. If you desire something stuffed, I can recommend the zucchini dolmalar.
Carnivores are well taken care of. Kebabs run $10–$18, and the portions are generous, probably 30–40 percent larger than portions in Turkey. There is the inevitable doner and iskender kebab, but my favorite is the Adana kebab, a mildly spicy minced-meat kebab named after the Anatolian city of Adana (but found everywhere in Turkey). Here the meat is all beef, the spice one-dimensional, but it is still a reasonable facsimile, with sumac added for flavor. Delivered with a salad and a large helping of rice fluffed before serving, it is well worth ten bucks.
For something more interesting, order the alinazik kebab ($14). This version has grilled chunks of lamb on a bed of patlican salatasi, with seasoned olive oil and browned butter drizzled over the top. Be warned: it comes with no starch or salad, but it’s very filling. I haven’t sampled the tavuk sis (chicken shish kebab), but have had both the kuzu (lamb) and et (beef), which weren’t bad. Still, I’ll stick with the Adana kebab. The beyti kebab was very different: the minced and formed meat was grilled, then wrapped in lavas. I found the tomato-based sauce that had been poured over everything too tangy, and the soggy texture of the lavas was not to my liking.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I can say that the missus considers the baklava at Sultan to be good, the equal to most of what we had on our trip. Her favorite is chocolate baklava, “much better than in Turkey, where it tastes like bad cocoa powder was used.” You’ll have to take her word for it. Also, Turkish baklava differentiates itself by using simple syrup instead of honey as a glaze.
The service is strictly “mom and pop.” Ditto the atmosphere. The menu has several items like kellepaca (tripe soup) and sigara boregi, a wonderful cigar-shaped, deep-fried roll, that, frustratingly, never seem to be available. No alcohol is served, but tea is free, and so are the wonderful memories stirred whenever I look at the photos of the Bosphorus and Cappadocia pasted above the kitchen area. ■
Sultan Kebab & Baklava
131 Jamacha Road. El Cajon, 619-440-1901; sultanbaklava.com
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. daily
Fare: Traditional Turkish fare with standard kebabs, but also vegetarian friendly.
Vibe: Family-owned restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere. No alcohol, free tea.
Must try: A variety of mezeler (appetizers), lahmacun (flatbread topped with mixed meat), dolmalar (stuffed zucchini, red pepper, or grape leaves), Adana kebab, alinazik kebab, chocolate baklava.