Wed 17 Jun 2009
So I’ve got a little confession to make: I get my hair cut at a salon. Ever since a certain beautiful and wise woman pointed out that I was getting what I paid for at that national discount hair-cuttering chain, I’ve been going to Bang Salon in the Verizon Center. And I actually feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.
But this post is NOT about that, I promise.
As I was walking back to the car after my most recent cut, I turned down 6th Street and stopped short. Right in front of me was a sign that I just couldn’t ignore. “Döner Kabob,” it beckoned. Obediently, I followed.
I walked into a small space, really little more than a carryout with a few stools along a counter that ran the perimeter of the room. At the rear was a counter where a man stood smiling and waiting. You may recall my enthusiasm upon learning that there was a pickle vendor at Eastern Market…this was a similar situation. I eagerly relayed my love of döner and my excitement to learn that this restaurant existed. He continued to smile and then instructed his co-worker to cut me off a slice of the döner meat so I could taste it for myself.
That first bite was all I needed – I ordered a full sandwich on the spot and settled in to wait for it.
What is döner, and why will we be coming back here so soon? After the jump…
For those unfamiliar with döner, it is literally “rotating roast.” In practice, it’s the Turkish equivalent of a gyro: meat (usually beef and lamb) spit-roasted and shaved onto bread with a salad’s worth of garnishes. The distinguishing characteristic for most döner is the use of a spiced tomato sauce as a spread.
For me, it’s a flashback to my time studying abroad in Trier, Germany. Turks are the largest ethnic minority in Germany and there are certainly tensions that result from this, but their kebabs have been wholeheartedly embraced as a quick-service favorite. I enjoyed döner from more than a dozen different shops over the course of my stay – in varying states of sobriety, of course – and I found myself craving its gyro-but-not-quite flavor from time to time ever since.
Unfortunately, I had been unable to scratch that itch here in Washington, as the only version I could previously find within the city was at Cafe Divan in Georgetown. Though tasty, it was served in a completely different style than the döner I remembered. I thought I would have to hold out for a return trip to Germany.
Not anymore! Urfa Tomato Kabob offers up just what I was looking for, and they do it in a variety of styles. The traditional döner, with beef and lamb and your choice of lettuce, tomato, onions, parsley and a pair of sauces (yogurt and Urfa hot sauce), is known as the Istanbul. Add feta and you’ve got the Athens (an unexpected choice of names for a Turkish restaurant, I thought). Substitute chicken for the beef and lamb? That’s the Beirut. Add humus to the Beirut and it becomes the Damascus. Not in a meat-eating mood? The Cairo offers falafel and tahini, and there is a basic veggie sandwich that comes spread with humus but lacks a city designation.
For those of you looking to soak up a night’s indulgences in nearby Penn Quarter bars, however, the Euro is probably the way to go. It takes that döner goodness and tops it with FRENCH FRIES. You’re welcome.
I went for the basic Istanbul, and I was pleased to see the lettuce, tomato and parsley were fresh and crisp. The yogurt sauce was cool with a touch of lemony acid and a slight garlicky burn. The tomato sauce – which I’ve come to believe is the ingredient that has been eluding me lo these many years – had a piquant note that offset the rich saltiness of the meat. The only misstep for me was the homemade bread. The counterman assured me that they are still experimenting with their baked döner delivery systems, but mine was a bit too doughy for the sandwich; despite the sizeable portion of meat I received, it was still overshadowed by the chewy bread. I would definitely prefer something more like a pita or a flatbread as they continue to seek their winning recipe.
Though I can only speak to the quality of the Istanbul, the folks at The 42 endorse the falafel sandwich. I eagerly look forward to trying some of the other options. Considering how poorly many kabob joints treat their chicken, I’m curious to see if Urfa’s Beirut is moist and flavorful or tough and dry.
And the name of the place? Though some Yelpers may think it sounds like a less-than-appetizing sound effect, Urfa is a nickname for the Turkish city from which the owner hails. On his carryout and delivery (very limited area) menu, he says, “Historic Urfa is one of the most evocative and romantic cities in Turkey.” I can’t say if it is or it isn’t, but they certainly make an evocative döner. Each bite took me back to Germany, and I can’t wait to bring Elizabeth with me for the trip next time.