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Chefs’ secret

Flavor, taste, and pleasure materialize in a most unexpected location.

Free appetizer! Fresh tandoori-baked bread with three sauces
Free appetizer! Fresh tandoori-baked bread with three sauces

Whew. I sure earned this one.

Got off the Blue Line trolley at Pacific Fleet. Trying to get to Main Street, National City. Walked up the beginning of I-15. Could have ended up in Vegas, like, a year later. Had to backtrack, ask the guards at the Navy base how to get around their golf course. They pointed up 32nd Street.

Two miles later, I swear, I’ve crossed Chollas Creek, passed the huge NEX Navy Exchange complex, scrambled under the I-15, and then hit Main Street proper. I finally pass a bunch of high-rise apartments rising outta nowhere.

Apart from them, this street’s basically small factories, warehouses. Tons of traffic, no actual people.

First sign of humanity: a tattoo joint. Second sign: “Nude Girls. Adult Emporium. Smoke Shop.” A red-and-black bunker with no windows.

Place

Lezzet Café

3586 Main Street, San Diego

Third sign of civilization, a rad green building with a coat of arms above its door. Two anchors lean against a kebab with green and red peppers over the sign: “Lezzet Café.”

At last! Oasis.

The back patio

I go in, to this big 1940s-style room with muted-green walls, frilly front curtains, a mountain view painted on black velvet, and, out back, a great patio with colored cloth canopies. They shade two rows of brown leatherette booths. Feels luxe and unreal...on this factory street, at least.

I end up sitting at the counter, right by the kitchen. Nice old-fashioned touch: a hand-basin at the end of the bar where you can wash the street off your hands.

Gül

Gal named Gül comes up with a menu. She has a Mona Lisa smile.

“Is this Turkish food?” I ask. I’m thinking of the kebabs on their coat of arms outside.

“Yes,” she says.

“Is ‘Lezzet’ the family name?”

“No. It is a Turkish word that means, ‘flavor, taste, pleasure.’”

“Uh, do you still have lunch?”

The chicken tikka — a deal at $6

Because what with the cross-country hike, it’s about two now.

“Oh, yes. And breakfast.”

At first glance, the menu doesn’t look that cheap, or that Turkish. They have crêpes (chicken, spinach, or mushroom) that run $8.75. Omelets, with stuffings pretty much the same, cost between 9 and 11 buckeroos. Sandwiches (same choices plus lamb or salmon) are also about $10.

But this is when it starts to get Turkish, and interesting. They have “homemade manti,” steamed dumplings, with mushrooms or beef inside. Three for $6, six for $11.95. Gözleme (Turkish pancakes), are $10 for three; beef pelmeni — ravioli — with yogurt and caramelized onions, go for $11.95.

But, with Turkish food, kebabs are it, right? And they’re here, except they range from $10.50 (for chicken) to $15 for beef, lamb, shrimp, or salmon.

Then I see they also have kebabs sold alone. I spot the chicken one, the tikka. It’s only $5.95.

So I ask for that and a cup of black tea, because that’s what Gül tells me most people drink in Turkey. Plus it goes for the princely sum of 99 cents.

Avocado dip
Red pepper dip
...and feathery inside

And that’s when I get the big surprise. Ten minutes later, Gül comes out carrying a plate loaded with a nine-inch puffy tandoori-baked round-bread. Hot! And she has three little sauce plates around it. She says the white one is yogurt with walnuts, the green is avocado, yogurt, and dill, and the red is red peppers, tomato, and dill. All three have garlic in there somewhere.

But how much?

“Oh, no. This is free. You get this when you order a main dish.”

Wow. I have at it. The sauces are all delicious, and the bread has that crisp, hot, steamy feel you only get when it is straight out of the tandoori. Love the mix with my black tea. And the red-pepper dip has some real heat. But I especially love the yogurt-walnut combo. Nutty, fresh, garlicky all at once. Basically, this is a meal.

So, I’m sipping and dipping and breaking off bread when Gül is back, this time with a bowl of red and yellow tomato and scrambled eggs, looks like. It’s for someone out on the back patio.

Menemen, the Turkish breakfast

“It’s menemen,” she says. “In Istanbul everyone eats it for breakfast. Scrambled eggs, tomatoes, red peppers, onions, pastirma.” She says it’s $6. I can’t resist it. Looks so danged colorful and steaming, and I know it will go with this bread like crazy. I order one, and in a couple of minutes Gül has the eggy, tomatoey, hammy mess hot under my nose.

Next, one of the chefs slides my chicken tikka kebab through the servery. Five big chunks of chicken that have just been pulled off a skewer. I start grabbing bits, and they’re way tangy. “The spices they put on are the chefs’ secret,” Gül says when I ask. “They definitely won’t tell me.”

But I keep wondering: why did they choose this spot? It seems so far from busy people-streets. “The owners are the cooks behind the curtain,” Gül says. “They are a family: two brothers, two sisters, and a sister-in-law. They are from Turkey. They are all over 65. They have never owned a restaurant before. They didn’t realize this was going to be next to a… dancing house. But we just have to make our food the best and hope people come.”

They’ve sure got a good sprinkling today. Navy, mostly, I’m guessing. I pack most of the chicken to take back to Carla. Wallet’s $15.05 lighter. If I’d stuck to the chicken kebab, it would have been more like $8 or $9. Still, $15 is not bad for feeding two people. And with the extras, super generous.

Now just gotta find a 929 bus stop. Can’t face another half-marathon back to the trolley.


Prices: Most crêpes (e.g., chicken, spinach, mushroom) run around $8.75; spinach omelet, $8.99; lamb sandwich, $9.95; manti (steamed dumplings with mushrooms or beef inside), $6 (for three), $11.95 (for six); gözleme, Turkish pancakes, $10 for three; pelmeni — ravioli — with beef, yogurt, caramelized onions, $11.95; lamb kebab with rice, salad, bread, $15; chicken kebab, no sides, $5.95

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Free appetizer! Fresh tandoori-baked bread with three sauces
Free appetizer! Fresh tandoori-baked bread with three sauces

Whew. I sure earned this one.

Got off the Blue Line trolley at Pacific Fleet. Trying to get to Main Street, National City. Walked up the beginning of I-15. Could have ended up in Vegas, like, a year later. Had to backtrack, ask the guards at the Navy base how to get around their golf course. They pointed up 32nd Street.

Two miles later, I swear, I’ve crossed Chollas Creek, passed the huge NEX Navy Exchange complex, scrambled under the I-15, and then hit Main Street proper. I finally pass a bunch of high-rise apartments rising outta nowhere.

Apart from them, this street’s basically small factories, warehouses. Tons of traffic, no actual people.

First sign of humanity: a tattoo joint. Second sign: “Nude Girls. Adult Emporium. Smoke Shop.” A red-and-black bunker with no windows.

Place

Lezzet Café

3586 Main Street, San Diego

Third sign of civilization, a rad green building with a coat of arms above its door. Two anchors lean against a kebab with green and red peppers over the sign: “Lezzet Café.”

At last! Oasis.

The back patio

I go in, to this big 1940s-style room with muted-green walls, frilly front curtains, a mountain view painted on black velvet, and, out back, a great patio with colored cloth canopies. They shade two rows of brown leatherette booths. Feels luxe and unreal...on this factory street, at least.

I end up sitting at the counter, right by the kitchen. Nice old-fashioned touch: a hand-basin at the end of the bar where you can wash the street off your hands.

Gül

Gal named Gül comes up with a menu. She has a Mona Lisa smile.

“Is this Turkish food?” I ask. I’m thinking of the kebabs on their coat of arms outside.

“Yes,” she says.

“Is ‘Lezzet’ the family name?”

“No. It is a Turkish word that means, ‘flavor, taste, pleasure.’”

“Uh, do you still have lunch?”

The chicken tikka — a deal at $6

Because what with the cross-country hike, it’s about two now.

“Oh, yes. And breakfast.”

At first glance, the menu doesn’t look that cheap, or that Turkish. They have crêpes (chicken, spinach, or mushroom) that run $8.75. Omelets, with stuffings pretty much the same, cost between 9 and 11 buckeroos. Sandwiches (same choices plus lamb or salmon) are also about $10.

But this is when it starts to get Turkish, and interesting. They have “homemade manti,” steamed dumplings, with mushrooms or beef inside. Three for $6, six for $11.95. Gözleme (Turkish pancakes), are $10 for three; beef pelmeni — ravioli — with yogurt and caramelized onions, go for $11.95.

But, with Turkish food, kebabs are it, right? And they’re here, except they range from $10.50 (for chicken) to $15 for beef, lamb, shrimp, or salmon.

Then I see they also have kebabs sold alone. I spot the chicken one, the tikka. It’s only $5.95.

So I ask for that and a cup of black tea, because that’s what Gül tells me most people drink in Turkey. Plus it goes for the princely sum of 99 cents.

Avocado dip
Red pepper dip
...and feathery inside

And that’s when I get the big surprise. Ten minutes later, Gül comes out carrying a plate loaded with a nine-inch puffy tandoori-baked round-bread. Hot! And she has three little sauce plates around it. She says the white one is yogurt with walnuts, the green is avocado, yogurt, and dill, and the red is red peppers, tomato, and dill. All three have garlic in there somewhere.

But how much?

“Oh, no. This is free. You get this when you order a main dish.”

Wow. I have at it. The sauces are all delicious, and the bread has that crisp, hot, steamy feel you only get when it is straight out of the tandoori. Love the mix with my black tea. And the red-pepper dip has some real heat. But I especially love the yogurt-walnut combo. Nutty, fresh, garlicky all at once. Basically, this is a meal.

So, I’m sipping and dipping and breaking off bread when Gül is back, this time with a bowl of red and yellow tomato and scrambled eggs, looks like. It’s for someone out on the back patio.

Menemen, the Turkish breakfast

“It’s menemen,” she says. “In Istanbul everyone eats it for breakfast. Scrambled eggs, tomatoes, red peppers, onions, pastirma.” She says it’s $6. I can’t resist it. Looks so danged colorful and steaming, and I know it will go with this bread like crazy. I order one, and in a couple of minutes Gül has the eggy, tomatoey, hammy mess hot under my nose.

Next, one of the chefs slides my chicken tikka kebab through the servery. Five big chunks of chicken that have just been pulled off a skewer. I start grabbing bits, and they’re way tangy. “The spices they put on are the chefs’ secret,” Gül says when I ask. “They definitely won’t tell me.”

But I keep wondering: why did they choose this spot? It seems so far from busy people-streets. “The owners are the cooks behind the curtain,” Gül says. “They are a family: two brothers, two sisters, and a sister-in-law. They are from Turkey. They are all over 65. They have never owned a restaurant before. They didn’t realize this was going to be next to a… dancing house. But we just have to make our food the best and hope people come.”

They’ve sure got a good sprinkling today. Navy, mostly, I’m guessing. I pack most of the chicken to take back to Carla. Wallet’s $15.05 lighter. If I’d stuck to the chicken kebab, it would have been more like $8 or $9. Still, $15 is not bad for feeding two people. And with the extras, super generous.

Now just gotta find a 929 bus stop. Can’t face another half-marathon back to the trolley.


Prices: Most crêpes (e.g., chicken, spinach, mushroom) run around $8.75; spinach omelet, $8.99; lamb sandwich, $9.95; manti (steamed dumplings with mushrooms or beef inside), $6 (for three), $11.95 (for six); gözleme, Turkish pancakes, $10 for three; pelmeni — ravioli — with beef, yogurt, caramelized onions, $11.95; lamb kebab with rice, salad, bread, $15; chicken kebab, no sides, $5.95

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