If there are an estimated 17 million souls in Istanbul, then there are at least that many opinions on where to find the best kebab in town. There are stodgy oak-paneled rooms with country-club appeal, where well-dressed businessmen marvel at heaping plates of delicious grilled meat. And there are 24/7 hole-in-the-walls, where lines form out the door for kebab that is just as tasty and expertly cooked.
Any credible best-of list will take for granted that what is coming off the grill is fresh and well-prepared, which leaves the determining factors somewhere outside of the sense of taste and more to a sense of personal style.
We want to feel comfortable eating with our hands and don’t mind if the table next to us gets loud as the rakı bottle makes its rounds. We want to be able to sit at the grill, or at least close enough to feel the heat on our backs, reminding us of the valuable work of the usta preparing our food. We don’t want to see a menu or hear any fancy kebab names; ordering should resemble an exchange at a butcher shop – just cuts of meat.
That said, there are places that excel at certain specialty kebabs, such as offal, that we include not as a novelty but because sometimes no lamb chop can satisfy a hunger pang for liver.
[Editor’s note: A newly elected government official recently shut down Birtat at its original location because it was too close to a mosque. They have opened two new locations, and the cooks at the original place are now at the Koşuyolu location, whose address is given below. We have not yet eaten at the restaurant since it has moved, but we plan to.]
Though some may say that the quality of the food has gone downhill in recent years – maybe they changed the usta or maybe they became too well-known (both common complaints against restaurants coping with success) – we’ve had nothing but consistently excellent experiences here. And though we’d swim across the Bosphorus just for the offal (try the liver and the tripe cooked in a clay pot), their standard kebabs are no less special. A mixed grill plate included çöp şiş (cubed beef), lamb chops and a thin antrikot (rib steak), topped off with a pile of soft, fresh pide lathered with a spicy tomato and pepper sauce – the icing on the cake.
Adana Ocakbaşı is a prototypical neighborhood kebab house. Though imitators may try to replicate Adana’s feng shui – the signature horseshoe grill that occupies most of the dining room, a humming cooler stocked with cuts of fresh lamb in a white-marbled shocking pink, wobbly tables and sawdust on the floor – this place has the unmistakable smack of authenticity. The pleasant surroundings set the stage for a very fine meal of lamb chops and ribs, delicious cubes of liver and a bonus, grilled sweetbreads.
Over the years, this restaurant has become our grill away from home. Now well known and packed to capacity most nights, there are few seats in the city where we feel as comfortable as we do seated at the grill opposite Zübeyir Usta. The gavurdağı salatası, blanketed in emerald-green parsley and drenched with tart pomegranate molasses, is a sprightly starter, best followed by a rapturous közde patlıcan (smoky grilled eggplant), which we spread all over thin chips of lavaş. Lamb chops and sebzeli kebap, finely ground lamb with peppers, are consistently part of our order, but Zübeyir really shines on the subject of grilled lamb ribs. Fatty and charred, dressed with just a bit of red pepper and thyme, this is the item against which we compare all other kebabs.
The best late-night kebab dive with the now famous dürüm, or kebab wrapped in lavaş, is still Dürümzade, but, truth be told, the dürüm at Antiochia may be the best in the city. Antiochia is not a typical kebab restaurant with a wide variety of meat. But its short-but-sweet list of kebabs is special enough to earn it a seat in our top five. We’ve made many satisfying meals from their Hatay-style mezes served with crispy lavaş. The grilled cubes of beef (et şiş) are served pleasantly pink in the middle (a rarity in a city where well-done is common practice) and very tender, while the tepsi kebab, a large round disc of hand-chopped beef, is refreshingly spicy and springy. The dürüm, on the other hand, is otherworldly. The Antiochia dürüm formula is this: each bite is equal parts cool and fresh (from the chopped tomatoes, onion, parsley and sprinkling of sumac), smoky and spicy (thanks to meat minced with a hint of fat), and crispy and chewy (the finished, wrapped-up product is given one last quick spin on the grill, leaving the lavaş wrapper flecked with spots of char). Unlike many of its hastily prepared brethren, this version has no empty pockets and leaves you with no great wads of lavaş to discard. In Istanbul, dürüm joints are as common as fast-food hamburgers are in American strip malls. Antiochia, though, represents dürüm-making at its peak, the In-n-Out Burger of the dürüm world.
As you exit the Aksaray Metro station, a sign in the distance reads “Ciğeristan,” welcoming visitors to the “land of liver” – and indeed it is. The restaurant of the same name is but one of the many places specializing in skewers of grilled liver on this street. We’ve tried them all, from Diyarbakır Dar Kapı Ciğercisi all the way around the corner to Savak Usta at Urfalım, and the one that feels just right to us is Babo’nun Yeri, “Papa’s Place.” In the kebab belt of Southeastern Turkey, every town claims to have its own signature liver grilling style whose reputation is worth fighting for (the fact that Urfans, Diyarbakırlı and Hatay men all grill side by side in relative harmony on this street is worth noting), but we suspect that most of those subtle differences were left behind when these usta migrated to Istanbul. Most everyone on this street buys their flatbread from Hacı Bub, the baker around the corner. All liver is served with the same fresh çoban salatası, ezme and raw onions with sumac sprinkled over it. But not every usta in Aksaray can deliver soft and moist liver on a consistent basis. This is the defining feature of Babo’nun Yeri – consistency. From the cave-dwelling décor to the kitchen crew, old habits die hard here. And as one of those habits includes excellent liver at very reasonable prices, we are all the happier for it.
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