The triangle of Kurtuluş, Feriköy and Bomonti represents an Istanbul on the verge of fading away. Though still inhabited by significant numbers of Greeks, Jews and Armenians, there are more local churches and synagogues than are used by the remnants of those diminished communities. The numerous schools, houses of worship and cemeteries are relics testifying to the cosmopolitanism that once defined this segment of inner Istanbul.
Another nostalgic quality of the area is its small-business culture, still thriving, yet on the verge of a major shift. Though there are many long-standing cake shops, butchers and meze delis, the gentrification triumvirate of artisanal pizza, craft burgers and third-wave coffee has come a-knocking, particularly in Bomonti, where the old beer factory (the neighborhood’s namesake) was recently revamped into the latest incarnation of the acclaimed concert hall Babylon. The gorgeous, glimmering venue and the numerous skyscrapers that lurk in the background foreshadow the inevitable creeping transformation of Kurtuluş and Feriköy, both home to middle-class quarters and poorer, run-down enclaves.
Within the triangle are also small pockets of street food vendors, some practically hidden in plain view. On one backstreet where Feriköy quickly transitions into Bomonti, Feriköylu Ömer Usta hunches under an umbrella draped over his miniature silver cart, prepping for the evening. Ömer Usta grills up sandwiches starring beefsteak, sucuk or grilled chicken hearts for those who mean serious business, but his specialty is köfte.
Homemade by Ömer Usta after his shift (which runs from 4 p.m. to midnight), this köfte is smooth and subtle, pairing perfectly with a powerful half-baguette loaded with lettuce, tomato, green pepper and red pepper flakes.
“After I close down I go home, I drink some rakı and make the köfte, then I let it sit until morning,” Ömer Usta said. It’s ready later that day in time for his next shift.
Hailing from the eastern province of Van, Ömer Usta has called Feriköy home for 40 years and has grilled up köfte in the neighborhood for 15. He once ran a brick and mortar restaurant but couldn’t make ends meet and is now based out of a tiny mobile cart wedged between two parked cars, just in front of the local kiraathane, a neighborhood meeting point where (mostly) men play board games and smoke cigarettes. Nearby are a barbershop and a horse race betting station, both of which harbor a rotating cast of customers, indicating that Ömer Usta selected a strategic location, likely nabbing his fair share of secondary business.
Ömer Usta is committed to his craft, and when he’s not grilling köfte or preparing his stock at home, he’s probably getting some shut-eye.
“I work every day of the week. No vacation,” the usta said, adding that he takes an occasional day off when he needs it.
Ömer Usta beckons to an employee of the kiraathane to bring us some tea, and we soon strike up a conversation with the other gentlemen assembled around the cart. “Everyone’s trying to go to America, and you are coming here,” said one elderly fellow seated next to the usta’s grill station. “They used to tell me the same thing when I was working in Iraq,” he added with a knowing smile.
A sandwich from Ömer Usta costs TL 7 (around US$2.50). Relaxed chat with the smiling, mustachioed master – in addition to a ticket granting admission into a tight-knit corner of Feriköy – are included in the price.