The first time we approached the stand of the legendary fish sandwich man, we were pleasantly surprised by what we saw: a dark, portly man with a glorious mustache (hence Mario, our nickname for him) turning fish on a portable grill cart next to the Karaköy waterfront. He had a long line of people patiently waiting for an hour to get their order in. He is surrounded by other balık ekmekçi trying desperately to ride the wave of his success, but they struggle to survive.
Mario, whose real name is Emin, takes his time like no other food seller on the Golden Horn. (His assistant, who works on Emin’s days off, is a stretched-out, taller version of Emin sporting a mustache of similar dimensions and is of course referred to – by us and some of our friends – as Luigi.) Whether Emin Usta has 20 people waiting or two, with one hand he nonchalantly takes a puff on his cigarette, and with the other he slowly turns the onions roasted in Urfa pepper flakes and a dozen other spices. He regards the people in line with an air of indifference that is uncommon among the famously hospitable Turks. But he has been doing this for 15-odd years now and knows he makes the best damn fish sandwich the city has to offer.
Emin Usta grills his onions and fish to perfection, then delicately picks out all the bones from the fish (like his competitors’, Mario’s comes frozen from Norway). The fish is then layered with the grilled onions, tomatoes and fresh lettuce. And of course, the cherry – that is, pomegranate – on top is nar sauce, a tart molasses made from the red fruit. As you sink your teeth in, the sum total produces a wonderful explosion of flavor.
In the years before we discovered Emin Usta, our Turkish friends would ask us if we had tried the famous fish sandwiches sold from tiny boats docked on the Galata Bridge. We had found them frankly unappetizing: overcooked fillets thrown into a piece of bread with raw onions and a couple of strands of wilted lettuce. Indeed, the whole of Eminönü and Karaköy is littered with these assembly-line fish sandwich operations, especially in the evening hours. None of their slapdash efforts come close to Emin Usta’s masterpiece, which comes in the regular sandwich version or swaddled in lavaş as a wrap, which is then grilled before serving, adding a delicious crunchy exterior.
As you wait in line you may notice a mysterious unmarked bottle next to the nar sauce and the assortment of spices on the stand. A friend once asked about its contents, and Emin replied, a twinkle in his eye, “It’s called the ‘you can’t know’ sauce.” We looked at each other quizzically and accepted it for what it was: the secret sauce that separated Emin Usta from the rest.