This notion is supported when you walk inside and find the diverse chaos of an Old World style market, stocked with goods from around the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins. Although it’s Palestinian-owned, the establishment’s name is a nod to a Turkish friend of the owner, Naser Aggad. It could just as well be a reference to Istanbul’s geographic position as a crossroads of the Middle East, and reflects a range of product offerings that includes Bulgarian feta, Greek taramasalata—a lox-like smoked salmon that my Jewish relatives would approve of—and baklava, the ubiquitous Ottoman treat.
The name could just as well be a reference to Istanbul’s geographic position as a crossroads of the Middle East, and reflects a range of product offerings that includes Bulgarian feta, Greek taramasalata—a lox-like smoked salmon that my Jewish relatives would approve of—and baklava, the ubiquitous Ottoman treat.
The hummus is silken and thin, more of a sauce than the thick mortar many westerners are used to dunking their chips into. Once you’ve dipped your kebab or shawarma into this creamy dressing, the hummus begins to upstage what it’s applied to, to the point where you simply don’t want to bite into something if there isn’t hummus on it. If I had this quietly awesome hummus at my disposal, I would have no need for mayo. You can get the hummus in platter form ($5.99), as an appetizer, on a sandwich ($3.99) or in bulk ($6.39/lb).
The meat dishes are competent and delicious, even if they don’t quite stand out the same way as these vegetarian staples. The shawarma platter ($8.99) consists of marinated and cooked chunks of lamb and beef, with a glorious puddle of that succulent hummus and a little cup of tzatziki sauce, made of cucumber, yogurt and tahini. The meat is just chewy enough to let you know that it is whole pieces, not ground, with subtle sweetness and a mildly pho-like aroma. The platters come dusted with sumac powder, which adds tangy flavor and a purple color that’s a beautiful contrast with the yellow saffron rice.
The ground lamb and beef gyro meat, by contrast, is more tender and succulent, like a cross between bologna and Italian sausage. I’m not a huge gyro fan, but in my limited experience, Café Istanbul’s gyro sandwich ($4.99/$5.99 extra meat) was superior to others I’ve tried.
One of the more surprising dishes was an appetizer of kefir cheese ($3.99 small/$5.99 large). This kefir is nothing like the fruit smoothie-like drink you might be used to. It’s as thick as cream cheese for starters, and arrives topped with a dollop of sriracha-like shatta chili sauce, and doused with olive oil. It comes with house-made pita pockets, steaming and fluffy for spreading this thoroughly delightful cheese.
Perhaps my favorite item on the menu is the falafel and eggplant sandwich ($4.99). The falafel is coarse and moist, with bits of parsley and not overly fried, and the eggplant—which is also available by itself as an appetizer—is cooked in a tomato sauce into something reminiscent of ratatouille or eggplant parmesan.
The sandwich’s component parts, bound together by tzatziki, combine into something entirely unique if you close your eyes and chew. All of the ingredients are elevated by the combination.
Calling a place like Café Istanbul “authentic” is another way of saying that what goes on here is different. This authenticity might take you out of your comfort zone, but at the very least, it will give you insight into another culture, another region, as it fills your belly. The staff speak Arabic to one another. The meat is halal, which is something like a Muslim form of kosher—literally it means “legal” or “allowed.” I watched a woman ask if the meat for sale—frozen chunks of chicken, lamb, beef and goat in a massive chest freezer—was kosher, and the burka clad cashier replied, “basically, yeah.”
This authenticity can also mean a different cultural relationship with time, to put it delicately. In other words, if you’re planning on arriving just ahead of the posted closing time, you should call first. They might already be closed. You might be frustrated if you show up hoping for a falafel eggplant sandwich, only to find the deli shuttered. But inside that bright yellow building, it’s another world. Their world. And they do it their way. And you will like it.