As I have mentioned before the small and handy guidebook “Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets” has taken me to nothing but some of the best restaurants and eateries in Istanbul, and the best dishes I have had in the city have all come from these places.
But I must share an exciting moment that occurred last Wednesday (July 3). A couple friends and I decided to spend our free afternoon in Sultanahmet and explore the Topkapi Palace. We went and spent only about 1 hour there as it was crowded with tourists and was not an enjoyable experience, so we decided to go back another day. We then headed to Gulhane Park right next door to go to the tea garden that sits right at the edge of the park’s cliff overlooking the Bosphorus and mouth of the Golden Horn. The Cay was on the pricier side but with a view like below, who can say no?
After some Cay, we felt it was time for dinner, we could have easily returned to the friendly Kasap Osman to have Iskender Kepab again but I decided to go for a nearby alternative suggested by Istanbul Eats: Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebalu.
Where A Foodie’s Hungry Stomach and Handy Guidebook Cannot Go Wrong
I knew the restaurant was on the same street as Kasap Osman and knew how to get there from Sultanahmet, but once we turned left into the small alleyway I was a little confused and lost as on either side of the alley were restaurants selling Cag Kebabi (a Skewered doner kepab). I was pretty certain we were in the right spot and right area and with my book in hand I looked up the name and tried to match it with the billboards but none of them seemed to match. As I kept walking and was about to walk past the restaurant, a waiter came darting out with his own worn out copy of Istanbul Eats opened to the page of their restaurant and asked if that was what I was looking for and then proceeded to point at the restaurant on the right hand side of the street (though I probably should have guessed as it was far more busy than its “rival” across the alley). Indeed it was such a out of the blue yet exciting moment for me, our stomachs were growling and my guidebook seemed to take on a soul of its own and call to the restaurant’s copy of Istanbul Eats. Thus a mix of one’s hungry stomach and essential foodie’s guidebook brought us to one of the best kepab restaurants in Istanbul!
Cag Kebabi is a horizontally roasted and then skewered Doner Kepab that is similar to Argentina’s Asado or Brazilian churrasco, and in Turkey it originated in the Anatolian province of Erzurum. The marinated lamb is slow cooked over a wood fire, the lamb is slowly turned and cooked and one can see the juices and oils drip and sizzle. The way the cag man cuts the meat is quite different from the vertical kepabs, he turns the meat and then carefully selects the perfectly cooked areas because skewering a small bit then using the knife to cut it off, this is nice as the cut meat doesnt fall into the sizzling grease below. It is definitely harder and requires more patience and skill than the normal doner kepab.
Once skewered and then lightly roasted again in a small oven next to the wood fire, the cag kepab is ready to be served with lavas (pronounced La-vash), a Turkish tortilla, along with buffalo milk yogurt (one of the better yogurts in town), a onion/cucumber/ tomato salad and a very flavorful chili paste. But its really about the meat. I mean, WOW, that first bite! The lamb is extremely tender and succulent and literally just melts in your mouth with a small explosion of the flavors from the marinade and the evident smokiness from the wood fire roast (but not one that is overwhelming). The thinly sliced and skewered pieces of lamb also went well with the yogurt and especially the chili paste, all wrapped up in the lavas. If you start to worry about this heavenly experience coming to an end when your first skewer nears its finish, dont worry! Oscar, the main cag man, will skewer your 2nd round, as each order comes with 2 skewers. And indeed 2 skewers is the perfect amount, not leaving you too full, nor yearning for much more, just the right amount to leave you happy and satisfied and certain you just floated on a cloud towards foodie heaven.
Per recommendation of Istanbul Eats we ordered Kadayif Dolma for dessert, a torpedo-shaped dessert made of fried shredded wheat wrapped around chopped nuts and drizzled with a sweet and sticky syrup. This was quite tasty as well.
When people think of Turkish cuisine one dessert that often gets mentioned is Baklava, the famed Turkish phyllo pastry made of layers of flaky pastry filled with pistachio and cream and doused with a sweet and sticky syrup. When referring to Istanbul Eats and actually when asking locals, everyone seems to agree that the best place in town for the classic Turkish dessert is: Karakoy Gulluoglu. Its been in Istanbul since 1949, it still makes the Baklava in their factory store in Karakoy just a few strides away from their hustling main store, and they still stick to old traditional Ottoman recipes even though they have scaled up their production. Its so famous and popular that when you sit and eat, you’ll notice that on the TV screens lining the walls they show the various international TV Programs that have ventured to Gulluoglu to interview its owner and try the famed baklava. And once we tried it, we werent too surprised why.
The store maintains an old-school bygone era feel from the 1930s and 40s. You go in and will be sort of overwhelmed by the displays of all sorts of baklavas, who knew there were so many variations?! But the classic one comes in small cube shapes or large triangular slices. The places operates in two ways: 1) you can order and pay at the cashier and take your receipt to the men behind the counter who will give you your food, or 2) you can order what you want at the display counters then pay at the cashier. Also note: one portion of the smaller cube shaped baklavas has 4-5 pieces. Water and Cay are both for free for you to help wash down the gooey sweetness of Baklava.
We came here after our delicious dinner of Cag Kepab. We opted for the large triangular slices (1 slice per portion) as well as a portion of the chocolate baklava (4 slices per portion). And the first bite in we were all not surprised by why its so famous and popular among travelers and locals alike. The paper thin pastry was crunchy yet fluffy, combined with the creamy yet chunky pistachio filling and the douse of syrup erupted with just the right amount of sweetness, nuttiness and texture. It was indeed the best Baklava I have had so far in Turkey. Though the triangular slice was huge and I was nearing my limit, I couldnt help but just finish it because it was that good.
Baklava is a quintessential Turkish dessert, and one really should have the best Baklava experience before departing the country. I honestly believe this is the place to do it, trust me you simply cannot go wrong here.
Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebalu
Hocapasa Sokak 3/A, Sirkeci
Phone: 212 520 3361
11:30-7:30pm, closed on Sundays. Get off at the Sirkeci tram stop.
Main Store: Rihtim Caddesi Kati Otopark, Alti 3-4
Factory Store: Mumhane Caddesi 171, Karakoy
7am-10pm, get off at the Karakoy Tram stop.
Do not miss out on these two places when you are in Istanbul! You’ll simply disappoint your ever hungry stomach!