Royal Road


Kings Highway is Brooklyn’s camino
real— a grand thoroughfare tracing a grid-defying arc through the heart of immigrant neighborhoods: East New York, Flatlands, Homecrest, Midwood, Bensonhurst. From the raised platform of the D train, benches that seem like they’re placed there for that purpose afford an expansive view of the artery; around the first corner to the north is Turkish Café and Restaurant, a 24-hour establishment that glowed like a beacon one cold Sunday night. The interior is painted Pepto-Bismol pink, festooned with Anatolian travel posters and a single oil landscape of a snow-capped peak and rushing torrent, more Telluride than Turkey.

Skip the boring shepherd’s salad in favor of the appetizer mix ($5 small, $9 large), described self-consciously on the menu as a “rich combination.” It consists of pleasantly grainy humus, flavorful white-bean salad, wheat-heavy tabouli, ethereally light and lemony baba, and two other tasty eggplant concoctions laid out on a long metal platter demarcated with tomatoes, black olives, and curls of shaved cucumber. A basket of excellent bread, made in the pizza oven and brought warm to the table inflated like floatation cushions, accompanies this tour de force. Homemade bread at a Turkish restaurant is a certain harbinger of an excellent meal.

My favorite starters, though, turned out to be the soups. Three or four are offered each day, of which the best is tripe ($3), thickened with egg yolks and rife with snippets of tender cow stomach. Disappointingly mellow by itself, it’s transformed by pouring in the bowl of vinegar laced with raw garlic and chile pepper that’s provided, giving the soup a spectacularly sour and spicy twang. Throughout Turkey, tripe soup is considered a surefire hangover preventative, ladled from stalls called iskembe that are open late into the evening along busy streets. For tripe abstainers, the lemon-sparked lentil soup is a better choice.

Save for one, all the kebabs involve lamb, cooked on the grill alluringly positioned in the front window. The best is adana kebab ($7), coarsely chopped lamb mixed with onion and red pepper, hand-fashioned onto swords in undulating columns, leading to quicker cooking and increased crispiness. They’re served two to an order on a bed of oiled rice, sided by grilled tomatoes, foot-long chile peppers (which can range from mild to incredibly hot), and masses of raw, sumac-dusted onions. Skip the leathery doner kebab (a/k/a schwarma or gyro) in favor of the shish kebab ($9) or, for those with deeper pockets, the collection of four lamb chops ($12), their bones festively wrapped in aluminum foil.

But if you really want to indulge, pick iskender kebab ($9). This extravagant treat was invented comparatively recently in the city of
Bursa, a ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul. Cubes of toasted bread that line an oblong plate are inundated with clarified butter and clobbered with clouds of yogurt. Next, strips of gyro— if you ask nicely, adana kebab can be substituted— are laid on. Finally, the top is splatted with a tomato sauce that, in contrast to most Turkish joints, is made from coarsely chopped fresh tomatoes instead of canned. This formulation gloms its various components together, challenging each diner to extract the choicest morsels. It takes four to finish it without exploding.

In the absence of the hookahs provided at other Levantine places, a cup of muddy Turkish coffee will complete the meal, and happily send you on your way along the king’s highway.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 16, 1999

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