It is hard to identify exactly when the forgotten neck of Istanbul between Etiler and Arnavutköy became prime real estate. Not so long ago, overgrown green space alongside the road was interrupted by the occasional car wash and low-slung shanty; it was not so much a place as a road to other places. But now it seems this road is going places of its own. A private tennis club with a swimming pool shares a parking lot with Backyard, a café and restaurant with a big grassy yard filled with lounging parents and children wallowing in that rare Istanbul commodity: grass.
We had come for the grass too, but chafed at the rest of the package deal: pricey lattes, ordinary café fare and a scene that felt ill at ease despite the superfluous comfort of the place. But on the way out, just beyond the parking lot, we spotted something that looked as out of place as Jed Clampett’s jalopy parked outside of his mansion in Beverly Hills. This was Albay Dürüm, a trailer-borne grill joint in dire need of a paint job – and, we decided, a return visit with an empty stomach.
On our next visit, we met Zuhur Usta, who, for 13 years, has been grilling up köfte, Adana and Urfa kebab in this trailer at rest under a big willow tree that covers it like a bushy green wig. When the grill gets going, the entire trailer fills with smoke, which belches out of the front and back windows and then lingers in the bangs of the tree.
As he fanned the coals, Zuhur Usta laughed heartily, if not maniacally. “This is relaxing, my friend! I had a newsstand before this. That job really chewed me up!” he yelled. To behold this scene from the parking lot of the tony tennis club next door, Zuhur’s enterprise must seem ghastly. But as seen from the more down-to-earth taxi stand found on the other side of Zuhur’s truck, the place looked like the perfect lunch spot.
One customer walked up to the service window and ordered a dürüm without onions, explaining that his boss forbade him from eating onions on his lunch break. Another customer chided him, “Believe this: I don’t eat any food without onions, ever.” Zuhur Usta then intervened, promising that the sumac he puts on the onions kills the smell and that the guy’s boss would never know. “No problem,” he promised. The customer hemmed and hawed before accepting the dürüm with onions and whatever consequences it might bring. Zuhur cackled with pleasure, rolling up the thick, onion-stuffed dürüm and laying it on the fire to lightly toast the lavaş. Somehow, we were all in this together.
In the “dining area” – a shack with plywood walls next to the trailer – casual conversation drifted among the men sitting on stools at low tables as the dürüms were brought over one by one. One man told of a grandfather who drank watery yogurt for breakfast every day, never tea, and lived to the age of 100; he was an immigrant from Yugoslavia. The reluctant onion eater offered up that his grandfather came from Bulgaria but settled in the Anatolian city of Eskişehir, which is where he grew up and went to college before moving to Istanbul.
The mention of Eskişehir prompted another man from the taxi stand next door to tell the group that he did his military service in that city and had a buddy named Murat who worked in the lumberyard there, but everyone knew him as kabadayı (a generic nickname for a roughneck). To this day, he exclaimed, go ask for “kabadayı” at the lumberyard and everyone will point you to Murat. Our taxi driver, who had decided to join us for lunch, said he’d bought some land really cheap near İzmit. Once he managed to get his daughter married, he planned to quit driving a taxi and go take it easy there for the rest of his life. He could nap under a tree, perhaps, or even in the cold water of a creek, he daydreamed out loud. Alas, his daughter was only ten years old, so it would be a while still. Upon hearing that, Zuhur, getting some fresh air outside of his smoky trailer, led everyone in a chorus of laughter.
We eavesdropped our way through one of the thickest, juiciest dürüms we can recall eating. The meat of our Adana was fatty in a very good way, working alongside halved tomatoes that were grilled and then loaded inside the lavaş with whole grilled peppers and a lot of very pungent, oniony onions. This was a dürüm with muscles. The bottom two inches of the dürüm were so soupy with fatty kebab drippings it was nearly impossible to eat, but we worked on it for a while, enjoying our seat in this confederacy of chatterers.
Though the dürüm was very tasty, the secret ingredient that Zuhur Usta and so many other small independent restaurants understand is not so much about the food itself. That special something is soul and it is sprinkled liberally, like fairy dust, over everything the usta does. As much as for the dürüm, customers, like us, grow affectionate for the man behind the grill, in all of his wisdom and folly. Basking in their glow, we feel alive. We eat onions when we shouldn’t, we unload our complaints, share unprompted recollections and empathize with perfect strangers. A casual relationship is formed in a circle around this usta who has orchestrated the encounter and we are all very grateful to him for it. It is a component of Turkish culture with inestimable value. Some people believe the large network of casual relationships is the bond that holds this whole place together. As much as we treasure access to grass and lawn chairs, it’s the sort of experience on a stool beside the Albay Dürüm truck that reminds us of the pulse of this city, the reason we choose to live here.