Convincing someone to accompany you to Istanbul’s Pendik district is no small feat. The Asian-side suburb is located in the far eastern reaches of the city, a trip of at least an hour and a half from the city center requiring no less than three metros and a cab. We’ve been met with moans and groans upon mentioning the name, as the district is synonymous to many with the wildfire-like urban sprawl that has engulfed Istanbul over the years.
Those up for the journey, however, are rewarded handsomely at Lipa, a meyhane serving Bosnian specialties. The neighborhood of Sapan Bağları is home to a large population of natives from Sandzak, a predominantly Bosnian Muslim region now split across modern-day Serbia and Montenegro.
Hailing from Sandzak, Ibrahim Türkoğlu’s family emigrated to Istanbul in the early 1960s, though their strong ties to their hometown, Novi Pazar in Serbia, have stayed intact to this day. Recent additions to Lipa’s heavily decorated walls include a football jersey from the Novi Pazar squad with Türkoğlu’s name on it, a souvenir from a recent trip back home.
The Türkoğlu family opened an under-the-table shop in 1973, selling goods imported from Sandzak, including Bosnian-style meze, kuru et (cured, dried strips of beef that will make you forget any other jerky you’ve ever had) and rakija, the potent liquor of choice in the Balkans, also known as erik rakısı (plum rakı) in Turkish. “We would sit on chairs made of plastic beer boxes. Our tables were made out of the same boxes,” Türkoğlu recalled with a chuckle.
The kaçak (illegal) shop went legit in the mid 80s, when Turkoğlu’s father decided to base a restaurant around the coveted goods they were selling. Lipa quickly became a neighborhood favorite, in no small part due to Türkoğlu’s palpable charm.
The white-haired, perpetually grinning Türkoğlu greets customers at the door, ushering them to a table of their choice – if there’s one available – in the expansive, yet usually packed dining room. If there’s a football match on, reservations are a good idea even on a Monday night. The bric-a-brac-laden walls conjure a down-to-earth, comfy vibe halfway between a hunting lodge and a dive bar.
We began with meze that are worlds different from the usual meyhane fare, owing to their Bosnian roots. The soka is a smooth, rich dish of pickled peppers bathed in süt kaymak. Unlike the Turkish kaymak, a slightly sweet clotted cream breakfast staple made from buffalo’s milk, the Bosnian version is a savory, sometimes garlicky affair often served alongside grilled meat. While Lipa now makes its kuru et in house, the soka is still imported from Sandzak. “We couldn’t pull it off here,” shrugged Türkoğlu, explaining that they couldn’t find the same peppers or replicate the style of kaymak. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
A plate of kuru et goes quick, and our dinner companions vowed to purchase a box to take home. The salty strips of beef were so memorable that they didn’t forget to get some to go at the end of the night, even after several beers and shots of rakiya. The bulgur pilavı was an extraordinary version that soared beyond the Turkish staple rice dish, perhaps due to the shreds of kuru et that it was laced with.
We admittedly were not thoroughly impressed by the köfte, which comes in several varieties. To be fair, it was definitely tasty, served in a shallow clay güveç atop a bed of sizzling peppers, french fries and onions. We were hoping for something along the lines of the cevapi we drooled over in Sarajevo, but as that ranks among the absolute best grilled meat we’ve ever had, we were somewhat let down here. On the other hand, the plate of Boşnak sucuğu, thinly-sliced spiced beef sausage, blew us away. The relentless saltiness worked, making it the perfect counterpart to cold draught beer.
Despite the ever-rising taxes on alcohol that have made a booze-fueled night out increasingly less accessible for many, Lipa manages to keep its prices reasonable. A three-person feast that included three entrees, seven appetizers, an unclear number of beers and a carafe of rakija set us back TL 348 ($92). We were stuffed and could have ordered less, but we couldn’t resist partaking in the unorthodox choices that one is unlikely to find anywhere else outside of Sapan Bağları.
Perhaps we have become too accustomed to the famously long commutes that characterize life in Istanbul. Many fellow residents balk at the prospect of a three-hour roundtrip commute for dinner. But that means they are likely to never experience Lipa. Its delicious Bosnian specialties, charming décor and superb service culminate in a blissful dining experience for which we would travel even further. Their loss!