We counted ourselves among the cogniscenti on our first visit to Mangal Kebab, a decade ago, when we passed up pizza in favor of pide (Pea-day). Sharing the same section of the menu and baked in the same oven, but elongated rather than round, the Turkish flatbread suggested a well-laden canoe, until it was sliced for portage from the kitchen, with a chewy crust that curled around seasoned ground lamb.
Over the years we’d also become acquainted with the kebabs, and the mangal – the grill, just behind the counter, that gave the restaurant its name. Mangal Kebab is a come-as-you-are neighborhood restaurant that seems easy to get to know, even though we don’t know the language.
We follow along, more or less, with CNN Turk, or Turkish pop-music videos, as they play quietly on the TV screen mounted high in one corner. We notice the tall Snapple-branded refrigerator, toward the back of the dining room, where juice drinks and colas keep company with Merve ayran, a salty, yogurt-based beverage, and Tamek nectars. And we eye the desserts, displayed under glass at the counter, that beckon even before we sit. (Looks like there’s been a run on kazandibi; should we order that last brown-topped pudding now?)
Yet a change in ownership at Mangal Kebab, and the arrival of a chef well-known in the Turkish community of Sunnyside, Queens, eluded our attention until very recently. Clearly, we’re not regulars, at least not yet.
“We have many customers who come almost daily,” the owner Engin Yasmun told us one recent evening. He acknowledged an older gentleman who sat at a table behind us; despite the fellow’s play-acted indecision, from his repartee with the waitress it was clear that he’d be ordering his usual, the falafel. Engin (whose given name is pronounced Ain-gin, with a hard “G”) also pointed out a headscarved lady who was biding her time at a table up front, near the register, and who “comes for the fried liver three-four times per week.”
“We have many customers who come almost daily,” the owner Engin Yasmun told us one recent evening.
“Most of our customers, we know what they eat,” he added, although his own tenure at the restaurant is relatively recent. Mangal Kebab opened in 2001; Engin bought it late in 2016. He isn’t sure where in Turkey the previous owner comes from, but the broad mural at the back of the dining room, of bridges spanning the Bosphorus, suggests that Istanbul is a good bet. Engin himself was born farther east, in Kahramanmaras, or Maras for short. The nearest major Turkish city is Gaziantep, about 80 kilometers to the southeast; from there it’s half again as far south to Aleppo, Syria.
Engin’s college days took him still farther away – to Bangkok, Thailand, where he studied electrical engineering, a profession he pursued there for 20 years. He speaks Thai as well as Turkish and English; he also retains an interest in a Thai tourism company that enables Turkish and U.S. professionals to explore business opportunities while they see the sights. Engin has no plans to introduce Bangkok flourishes at Mangal Kebab, but he does know a couple of nearby restaurants where he can get a good stir-fry.
Sunnyside is home to a handful of other establishments frequented primarily by Turkish-Americans – a cultural center, a mosque, a pair of markets – as well as at least one other Turkish restaurant, across the boulevard. But, all in all, the neighborhood offers few halal options, according to Engin, who notes that his patrons include many people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. Albanians and Romanians, too, a manager observed – and folks who “just like Turkish [food],” Engin is quick to add.
Even so, Engin says that “eating kebabs [every day] is not a good idea.” Many patrons “come for the specials” prepared by Ankara-born Nazli Yilmaz, whose 18 years of cooking in New York include stints at two well-known restaurants on Manhattan’s East Side. Engin feels fortunate to have her onboard, adding that New York’s talent pool of Turkish chefs is very shallow. (For the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, location of Mangal Kebab, which Engin opened this past spring, he managed to find a fellow who has been “cooking since childhood.”)
Earlier this year, in celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, Chef Yilmaz prepared a dish of fried lamb that had one customer almost in tears with remembrance, Engin recalls. Lamb also rears its head in several recurring specials, including one homey dish that the chef prepared during our visit (and to which Engin treated us): ground lamb, seasoned with tomato, black pepper, garlic, parsley and onion, overloading what is described, all too humbly, as “stuffed eggplant.”
It’s been years since we ordered a Mangal Kebab pide. We asked Engin about his takeout business, imagining that he – like many restaurateurs who use pizza ovens for non-pizza purposes – simply stocked up on square boxes with a caricatured Italian chef on the cover. Engin decided instead on a long narrow box “special-ordered … from Turkey with the Mangal name.” He couldn’t show us one that evening, however. The last of those bespoke boxes had recently left the building, fitted around an outgoing order – lamb again, we bet.