630 Ninth Avenue, San Diego
The pedicab driver hauls up to the sidewalk. He leaves all his lights blinking and darts into a refurbished brick building. A couple of minutes later he's back out, leaning on the lamppost, chomping into what looks like a wrap.
"Mmm," he says. "Istanbul."
"Wrap?" It looks like a tortilla, stuffed with meat and salad.
"No, no," he says. "Doner kebab. Real Turkish-style."
His name's Ufuk. He's a student of naval architecture back in Istanbul, but he's here for the summer, discovering San Diego the best way.
"I come here for this every night," he says.
We're standing outside this faux-bricky frontage with "The Kebab Shop" sign backlit above the entrance.
"Turkish foods," says Ufuk, "there's a difference. We were always on the spice routes from Asia, so we got used to rich flavors. To us, American food is a little dry, a little unexciting. But this meat...go have one."
Good idea. Nine p.m., but they're open till ten. Why not?
Inside there's more brick, but it's really cool decor. Lime-green chairs at the half-dozen white tables. Brown-stained concrete floor, a yellow wall, a white wall, a black wall, black ceiling, glowing Moroccan hanging lamps, photos of Turkey, Turkish-sounding music, and one big, vertical cone of lamb rotating in front of gas flames. That's what "doner" means in Turkish: "turned on a spit." (If you want to be a stickler, you spell it "döner" with the dots.) "Kebab" means "grilled meat," either speared on its own spit, or like here, carved off the big spit. I notice the cook. A way-tall redheaded guy in his '20s, looks like.
"Doner kebabs are coming to America!" says the menu. Huh. So this is new?
"Actually," says the cook, Aaron (he's also the owner), "I am just about the first doner kebab place in the United States. Maybe second. And yet they're all over Europe. Every street corner."
Aaron's a San Diegan, born and bred, six foot seven. He has trained as a chef, worked as an IT man, got this idea in his head when he was in Europe after he married his Swiss wife Sandra. "You get hooked. See those kids?"
He points to a bunch of guys and gals noisily heading out after a meal. Turns out they're all students, just back from Spain. Came here to relive the "Spanish" food they'd eaten there: doner kebabs.
"It's like soccer," says Aaron. "Everywhere in the world except the U.S. So I'm bringing it here."
Guess I'd better see what the fuss is about.
The choice is pretty simple. The basic items, doner kebabs, are all $4.95. They're wrapped in flatbread that looks like a flour tortilla, and in fact is. Aaron says flour tortillas are identical to traditional Turkish unleavened bread. It's stuffed with slices of lamb, chicken, or falafel (the chickpea patties), plus a raft of salad items. Shawarma kebabs, served in buns like burgers, have exactly the same ingredients and are exactly the same price. Aaron says the name "shawarma" comes from an older Turkish term also meaning "turned on a spit," except by hand.
Shish kebab plates, such as the Moroccan shrimp kebab ($8.95), the beef köfte (spiced ground beef) kebab ($7.95), or the grilled vegetable kebab ($6.95), come with two sides, like rice and Algerian eggplant, or salad and fries.
The one I'm really tempted by is the Iskender kebab. I know "Iskender" means Alexander and kinda honors Alexander the Great, or Colin Farrell, that Irish actor, to you and me (come on now, you saw the movie). So it's gotta be an important dish.
Turns out it's the most important, the most Turkish, and whoa -- see one coming across the counter -- just the most, period. The moby oval plate is loaded with chopped-up pita bread, tons of shaved lamb kebab, a coating of tomato-based sauce, white blobs of yogurt, and greenery sprinkled on top. Enough for two, I'd say, and it's only $7.95.
"We bake the bread so it's crispy," says Aaron, "pile on the lamb, add our tomato sauce, then add browned butter, which gives it a mysterious richness. Then lebneh yogurt, sweeter than regular yogurt. And finally I roast an Anaheim chili for the side."
I almost go for the Iskender. But honestly, I'm not sure I can handle it all. Plus I have a secret lust to try the kebab in a bun. Exotic hamburger idea. So I order the lamb shawarma and get a $1.50 iced tea.
Oh gosh. Now I see they have a cabinet full of really interesting side salads ($2.50) too, including minted zucchini, curried egg, and that Algerian eggplant.
I add a side of eggplant and go find a table to wait. Two gals and a guy have just picked up their Iskender. They tuck in. One gal and the guy are speaking a foreign language -- could it be Turkish? I have to ask.
"Yes, we're Turkish," says the guy, Ali. "Melek has just arrived from Istanbul. This is her first night in San Diego." The other gal, Karyn, is American. Works at the convention center.
I have to ask. "Is this Iskender like the real thing?"
"For sure," says Ali. "Very Turkish. This is the one you must have."
Too late. I see Aaron sawing off my kebab meat, not with the traditional long knife, but with a mini circular saw. He just strokes it down the cone of lamb and the meat falls off, fine-cut. I go up and get my tray, sit down, and pig out. Must say, this lamb is luscious. Better than a baa-becue, heh heh. The meat melts in your mouth. You can taste a garlicky yogurt sauce, plus lots of good fresh salad. Lettuce, red cabbage, cucumber, onions, little bit of mint. It's like a burger for health freaks. And the eggplant side salad gives tang to this thang.
So has Aaron nailed it, Turkish-foodwise? "Look around you," says Ali, who owns the VIP Pedicab Company. "Almost everybody eating here right now is Turkish! We Turks come to an American to cook us our home comfort food. What else can I say?"