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Ergenekon Avenue, the busy, one-way street that separates the Istanbul quarters of Kurtuluş and Pangaltı, is particularly bustling at the Osmanbey metro exit. For years now, the heavy foot traffic has outgrown its narrow sidewalks, peaking into an insurmountable throng at evening rush hour.

On one side is an expansive walled Levantine Catholic cemetery, while the other side of the avenue marks the beginning of Kurtuluş, with its dead-straight residential backstreets running in parallels. These have become home to an array of bars, cafes, restaurants and meyhanes that have popped up within the past several years and seem to keep multiplying. But nestled into a small storefront on the crowded Ergenekon is Pangaltı Sandviç, a tiny delicatessen that has been selling sandwiches made with top-notch ingredients since 1996, long before any of these newcomers.

Its owner, Ekrem Yılmaz, migrated with his family to Istanbul from the Black Sea province of Giresun at the age of 4, during the first half of the 1960s. Ekrem Bey says he was an avid student and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Despite coming from a lower-income, working-class background, he was accepted to Kabataş Erkek Lisesi, one of the most-prestigious high schools in Istanbul. But he never got past Turkey’s notorious, fate-defining university entrance exams – the preparation of which requires an outdated model of rote memorization.

It was the late 1970s, and the talkative, amiable Ekrem needed a Plan B. He found himself in the video business, renting VHS and Betamax tapes at their height of popularity. He did that for over a decade before jumping ship in 1990 to open a dried fruit and nuts shop in Pangaltı, eventually converting it to a small grocery where he would later make sandwiches on the side. In 1996, he smartly shifted focus to sandwiches exclusively, though remains of his market still exist. Soft drinks, cigarettes, snacks and other small items are still on offer, as well as tea and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The gleaming counter of Pangaltı Sandviç features dozens of sliced deli meats, varieties of Turkish cheeses, fresh vegetables, olives and Amerikan salatası (which, comically, Americans know as Russian salad, and Russians call Olivier salad). This egg and mayo-laden potato salad is made by Ekrem’s wife, who also makes the shop’s iconic tomato sauce, a recipe she learned and modified from an older Armenian woman in the neighborhood. It is made from fresh blended peppers, tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, green onions, red pepper flakes and other spices, and is proudly referred to by Ekrem as “famous and in high demand.” He also offers a variety of freshly baked bread, from sandwich rolls to whole-grain loaves to baguettes studded with sesame or poppy seeds.

“I strive to avoid buying second-tier products. Always number one. I’m willing to pay for it, but the cost is passed on to the customer – there’s nothing I can do about that,” Ekrem says. In a city perpetually struggling with inflation, we appreciate that he’s not willing to skimp on quality, and it’s why he has built up a solid base of regulars over the years.

“The best thing about our customers is that 95 percent of them are the same regulars, and they all come at the same time,” Ekrem says. Due to his shop’s location in the center of a busy area, people stop by throughout the morning to grab a sandwich and go. It doesn’t hurt that Pangaltı Sandviç opens at 6 a.m. (a rarity in late-rising Istanbul, except for those in the breakfast sandwich biz).

Mobile carts and büfes (small fast food stalls) are the usual hawkers of the breakfast sandwich in Istanbul, though these often have a limited selection of toppings and cheap, very pink deli meats. At Ekrem’s you’ll get a freshly-baked sandwich loaf or half-baguette stuffed with endless combinations of cheeses, stellar sliced meats, freshly-cut veggies and spreads. There is never a shortage of hard-boiled eggs, still warm and ready to be cut into. While the carts and büfes open at the crack of dawn and close by late morning (or convert to lunch options), Pangaltı Sandviç’s popularity over the years has encouraged Ekrem to remain open well into the afternoon. Diners who aren’t scrambling to get to work can sit down at one of the three tables in the shop and leisurely enjoy their sandwich. They all seem to be well-acquainted with Ekrem and his 30-year-old son Celal, who has been working alongside his father for the past three years.

Celal graduated from an Istanbul university with a degree in construction engineering, completed his mandatory military service and then hit the job market – as the pandemic hit Turkey. Unable to find something in his field, he started working alongside his father at the shop, where he quickly grew comfortable.

“I enjoy making sandwiches. We do this as a labor of love,” Celal says.

We can tell. Normally, we opt for a relatively minimalist sandwich given the eye-popping range of choices on display. Our usual order involves a baguette with Amerikan salatası, the famous tomato sauce, kaşar (a mild, Mozzarella-esque cheese), smoked turkey, tomato, arugula and olives. This time, however, Celal offers to let us put our fate in his hands, with which he assembles a masterpiece. He grabs a sandwich roll on whole-grain bread and wastes no time loading it with most of the ingredients above, in addition to pastırma (Turkish pastrami), smoked roast beef, beyaz peynir (Turkish feta), cheddar, sliced hard-boiled egg, smoked eggplant and red peppers, fresh sprigs of parsley and green olives. This mammoth of a sandwich looks intimidating, but the cornucopia of flavors is harmonious, spanning bold doses of umami, crunch and acidity that all blend together surprisingly well.

We’re unsure how we managed to finish this delicious behemoth (save one or two bites), but the large glass of tea likely helped. Ekrem and Celal have been chatting with regulars for the duration of our visit, though the older Yılmaz admits he’s tired from being on his feet all day. Their colleague, Hasan, helps keep things running as well, so Ekrem takes a seat to deftly cut thin slices of a delightfully salty and rich beyaz peynir to replenish the dwindling tray in the counter. It’s half past two, yet the steady stream of customers shows no sign of slowing.

While we admire the family’s commitment to quality, it’s the never-ending warm smiles and pleasant conversation of father and son that keep us hanging around after we’re done eating. They represent the ultimate echelon of esnaf (small tradesmen) who continue to thrive in the Kurtuluş/Pangaltı area, despite the inundation of trendy businesses and chain stores that are opening up in droves on all sides, threatening to displace the little guy. Pangaltı Sandviç offers a few special things that these competitors can’t, and we hope and expect them to be open for another several decades.

Published on December 06, 2023

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