By Linda Burum
The proliferating sizzle of grilled doner kebabs and scent of baked borek are heady signs of the growing number of Turkish restaurants in Southern California.
In Orange County, Doner G in Anaheim is expanding into Irvine. Another branch of Canoga Park’s Doner King recently popped up on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills. Also relatively new, two Turkish bakery-cafes — Ikram (Fountain Valley) and Gulluoglu (Granada Hills and Garden Grove) — offer a fantastic array of savory pastries and breads. Meanwhile, 2-year-old New Anatolia Cafe in Westwood has been working on its bakery next door for more than a year. “It’s almost ready,” the owner says.
Here’s a guide to some of the best places right now for doner kebab, imam bayildi (stuffed eggplant), mezze, baked manti (beef dumplings) and more:
The flavor of Adana, imported
Café Istanbul may be named for Turkey’s largest city but this Beverly Hills newcomer has roots in the country’s southeast near Adana, famous for the spicy bite of its kebabs. Ayean Arslan managed restaurants there. And when she and her co-owner husband, Sam, immigrated to be close to their college-age son, they transformed a former Jacopo’s pizzeria into a sleek red-walled dream of a room offering sophisticated mezze — and, of course, Adana kebabs.
Must try: crisp cheese-filled cigar boreks that shatter like glass; imam bayildi, halved roasted eggplant stuffed with nearly caramelized onions, tomato and garlic;beyti kebab, of seasoned ground chicken or beef rolled in lavash, topped with homemade tomato sauce and drizzled with tart creamy yogurt.
326 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 553-4545, CafeIstanbul90212.com.
Doner kebab a la Hamburg
This dedicated doner takeaway spot comes to us via Hamburg, Germany, where owner Ali Nowbahari ran a bevy of similar quick-serve shops for 18 years. Although his places are streamlined and efficient, you can expect large servings.Doner kebabs begin with those hefty cones of hand-layered beef or chicken that self-baste as they’re licked by the blazing heat of vertical grills behind the counters. The crisp-edged yet moist slivered meat they yield will be rolled in pita with a handful of greens, chopped tomato and a moistening of tart yogurty tzatziki to make a taste and texture sensation. Besides the standard doner, Doner King makes a uniquedoner version wrapped in the pizza-like flatbread, lamajune.
Must try: The beef or chicken doner, of course, but also ispanakli borek, a thick spinach pie crammed with feta; urfa kebab of spiced ground beef molded around a skewer with grilled vegetables served on a plate.
22349 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 312-9477; 19737 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 704-1100.
L.A.’s best lamb kebabs served overlooking an imaginary Bosporus
More than a dozen years ago, Sofra started its West L.A. life in a shopping mall food court. “But it was not the right place for such food,” says jovial owner Ray Gunes of his precisely marinated grills and beautifully presented mezzes, which arrive on dramatic paisley-shaped platters. “They closed the place at 8 p.m.” (Sofra now stays open until midnight and 1 a.m. on weekends.) From a funky stretch of Venice Boulevard, you enter the restaurant into a room with walls completely covered in eye-popping murals: scenes of the Bosporus’ shores and a hookah-smoking camel. But you’ll soon focus on the sizzling skewered lamb or chicken or the meats thwacked from the swirling vertical grills. Sprinkle on the housemade hot sauce, a puree of fresh vegetables punctuated with chile.
Must try: Kebabs of young lamb; Sofra kebab combination (four kinds) over salad dressed with feta dressing and grapes; chicken Adena kebab; kisir salad of bulgur with diced tomato and cucumber in tomato vinaigrette.
10821 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 838-8833, SofraKababExpress.com.
Turkish food from an Armenian family
If the magically thin, almost airy doner were the only great dish at Sako’s, Ani and John Panosian’s Reseda restaurant would still be worth a drive. But adventurous souls will probably want to explore the sort of dishes served here that Anthony Bourdain would crave for his short list. Take the chi kofte (Armenian) or cig kofte (Turkish), a blend of fresh raw beef and cracked wheat that you pick up with lettuce and dip in spicy sauce. It’s the Turkish kitchen’s answer to beef tartare. There’s ishkembe, or tripe soup, and the fried liver dish called jiger. It would be a big mistake to write off the plain-sounding fried eggplant. The long thin Asian vegetable is grilled to a toasty, creamy consistency, then smothered in a tomato-yogurt sauce that contrasts its sweetness with an explosive tang.
Must try: Yogurt soup; beef-stuffed fried kofte; fried eggplant; iskender kebab.
6736 Corbin Ave. (behind Taco Bell), Reseda, (818) 342-8710,SakosMediterraneanCuisine.com. Note: closed Monday and Tuesday.
New Anatolia Mediterranean Cafe
It’s true. The menu at New Anatolia lists doner as shwarma, probably using the Arabic name because it’s familiar to West Angelenos. But don’t let this tiny faux pas lead you astray. The giant cone of hand-cut beef and lamb fat that revolves before a vertical grill at the back of the cafe’s open kitchen yields crisp sizzling meat for a doner sandwich or plate that has carnivores swooning. Two more clues affirming the restaurant’s Turkish cred: the dips, emze (crushed tomato, onion and hot chile) and cacik (a garlicky yogurt and cucumber mix) appear on the mezze list. This homey little cafe, which hasn’t changed much since it was the Persian snack depot Canary House, also offers bowls of hangover-cure kelle pache. In Istanbul, this pungent soup is sold in dedicated shops that open only after midnight and close before dawn. The garlic-powered broth will keep you awake, if not sober. Step up to the glass dividing the dining room from the kitchen and peek at the mezzeand daily specials list. With any luck, they may have the stuffed eggplant, yet another clue to the kitchen’s Turkish authenticity.
Must try: Cacik, emze, and doner and iskender kebabs.
1942 Westwood Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 446-0055, NewAnatoliaCafe.com.
Doner with a slogan: “The taste you’ve been craving”
“You have to get a Turkish cook to get the right taste,” owner Yalcin Aslan said when asked the secret to his success. He complains about the tribulations of getting H-1B visas but says “it’s worth it.” While Orange County Turkish restaurants have come and gone, Doner G thrives as a destination for a growing fan club of Turkish families and hungry college students. “You also have to cater to everyone,” he says. Aslan has accomplished this goal with a stylish quick-service format and doner piled high with so much meat a pita barely contains it. There’s also great attention to freshness. Things run out late in the day, customers have said, but you know your food hasn’t been sitting around.
Must try: Beef doner in pita; beef and chicken doner plate; iskender kebab topped with tomato sauce, lightly browned butter and yogurt.
2139 E. Ball Road, Anaheim, (714) 956-0123; opening late summer at Irvine Crossroads shopping center, 3720-3992 Barranca Parkway.
Best bet in downtown L.A.
If you happen to be near the Jewelry or Fashion districts in downtown Los Angeles, Sevan Garden in the landmark St. Vincent’s Alley offers two specialties that Turkophiles will want to know about. They make baked manti — the thumbnail-size beef dumplings that usually come smothered in creamy yogurt-garlic sauce (most Turkish or Armenian restaurants make boiled or steamed manti). Served unceremoniously in a round tin-foil pan, the two dozen or so dumplingettes look like a minuscule beef version of siu mai. You must always get them with the garlic sauce. Tomato sauce is offered, and I believe it’s simply a puree poured from a can. Vegetarians might be pleased to learn that Sevan Garden prepares several Anatolian style — without meat. Green beans or pinto beans are braised in olive oil with aromatics and tomatoes that form a delicious stewy sauce. White beans are made into a refreshing salad tossed in a lemon vinaigrette with red onion, parsley and black olives. Each comes with hummus and a cucumber-tomato salad.
Must try: Green bean meal; pinto bean meal; white bean salad meal; baked manti; vegetarian mezze plate.
621 St. Vincent Court (enter from Hill or 7th streets), Los Angeles, (213) 489-5626.
A mini chain of doner kebaberias
With three locations, Spitz has probably done the most in recent times to put Turkish cuisine on the Southern California foodie map. Some claim Spitz’s food is to Turkish what Chipotle is to Mexican. This is clearly the intent of co-owners Bryce Rademan and Robert Wicklund. They describe their food as “a California twist on a European favorite using fresh and healthy ingredients, made daily in house.” Hence the sweet potato fries and Greek salad with balsamic dressing. Spitz’s Eagle Rock branch has a gelato bar; the Little Tokyo and Los Feliz branches serve alcohol.
Must try: Beef doner with feta or French fries inside the wrap; panini-grilled lavash wrap; street-cart doner.