In the mid 80s when my Kim and I lived in rural, agrarian England, a “sandwich” meant one of three things: a warm, fresh floury bap with butter, Cheddar cheese and Branston’s Pickle from our favorite bakery in Lechlade; a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (with chips (fries), of course) from The Plough in Fairford; or a doner kebab from a jankety kebab house in Banbury.
There just weren’t many other sandwich options (not to mention burgers and pizza) in the Cotswolds region of England where we lived and certainly no subs, grinders, torpedoes, po’ boys or hoagies. In fact, to our British hosts, the notion that “Yanks” had so many options and fillings for our sandwiches was sheer lunacy on the level of King George, III. Never mind that the bread-encased convenience food known as the “sandwich” was invented by Englishman John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.
Of the three sandwiches, the memories of all which still rekindle pangs of hunger, our favorite was the doner kebab. It was our special occasion sandwich, the extravagance of which we chose to partake on birthdays and anniversaries. It was the indulgence on which we splurged (we were very poor back then) when we wanted to maximize our culinary enjoyment and stretch our pounds (English monetary unit). To this day—more than 25 years later—memories of those doner kebabs stir the type of powerful emotions one associates with the most pleasant of memories–on par with olfactory-arousing memories of my grandma’s tortillas just off the comal.
We weren’t the only ones crazy for kebabs. In England, where they’re even served in pubs, doner kebabs are considered an icon of urban food culture. They’re especially popular following a night of adult beverage excess, but are beloved at any time. If possible, they’re even more popular in Germany, where, as in England, large communities of Turkish immigrants settled. Doner kebabs are, in fact, the most popular street food in Germany, by far exceeding the popularity of the German source of historical and cultural pride, the sausage.
Aside from vegans, vegetarians and calorie counters, it seems the only person in England who doesn’t like doner kebabs is contrarian extraordinaire Gordon Ramsey who likens kebabs throughout the United Kingdom to “a piece of (expletive) on a stick that is taken off the burner at night frozen then reheated the next day.” Obviously he never visited the jankety little kebab house in Banbury which forever set our benchmark for excellence in Middle Eastern sandwiches.
If you’ve never had a doner kebab or have gleaned from this essay only that it’s some sort of sandwich, let me describe it. A doner kebab is a traditional Turkish dish made from meat roasted vertically on a spit, very similarly to how Greek gyros and other spit-roasted meats from throughout the Mediterranean region are prepared. On the long cylindrical spit, the meat resembles an elephant’s foot from which small pieces of juicy meat are shaved then crammed into warm pita or epic flat bread before being topped with a sauce and (or) lettuce, onions and tomatoes.
By American standards, the Anatolia Doner Kebab House on Sixth Street, could hardly be called upscale, but it’s posh and elegant compared to the jankety little kebab house in Banbury. Situated in a nondescript edifice just north of Central in the downtown area, it’s also much larger than many kebab houses in England, some of which are hardly more than roadside stands. Best of all, Anatolia’s menu includes a number of Turkish delicacies more than a step above street food. Anatolia’s menu touts its cuisine as “what mama used to make.”
Mama must have been one heckuva cook. The food at Anatolia is so good that our server declared confidently that we’d be back within a week. That was three days before my first return visit. I can’t yet state that Anatolia transports me back to England because I have yet to try Anatolia’s version of my beloved doner kebab. During my first two visits the specials of the day were too tempting to pass up. If that trend persists, it may be a while before I get to try the doner kebab.
The first special was a combination platter consisting of three meat skewers: chicken kebab, beef kebab and ground beef as well as an onion salad, several wedges of pita, a single roasted green chile, rice and Cacik, a very refreshing and cool sauce made with cucumber, yoghurt, mint, olive oil and spices. The meats are perfectly grilled and seasoned masterfully. All three meats are fork-tender and devoid of any annoying fat or sinew. The onion salad is drizzled with a sweet-tangy dressing, but would have been more interesting with just a bit of feta. The warm and delicious pita is the only item on the menu that’s not made on the premises, but it’s a high-quality pita. The Cacik (what Greeks call tzaziki) is outstanding while the rice is buttery, but not especially memorable.
Owners Mehmet and Umut Kokangul pay homage to their Turkish hometown with the Adana Shish Kabob, the special of the day during my second visit. Unlike other kebabs offered at Anatolia, the Adana is pleasantly piquant courtesy of Aleppo peppers, a Turkish pepper favorite with balanced heat and rich, sweet and smoky notes. This kebab has the texture similar to meatballs, but in an elongated meat package. Because of its heat properties, it should become a favorite of Duke City diners.
Appetizers are very inexpensive at Anatolia where you can get single-sized portions of falafel and dolmas for under a dollar. The falafel, fried balls of spiced chickpeas and favabeans, are quite good, especially for the price. Even better are the dolmas which are homemade. You can definitely tell the difference between the canned dolmas served at many Middle Eastern restaurants and the homemade dolmas served at Anatolia. The grape leaves are fresher and the flavors of lemon zest and olive oil permeate each bite.
Anatolia’s babaghannoug is among the very best in the city (as well as one of the most challenging to spell). The combination of olive oil, roasted eggplant and tahini (a sesame paste) is ameliorated with Turkish spices to form a wonderful dip for the pita bread. For an even more eye-opening, mouth-watering version, ask for the spicy babaghannoug which is punctuated with the bite of the Aleppo pepper. The color of the hummus resembles Thousand Island dressing and that’s not the only way in which Anatolia’s hummus differs from most in the Duke City. Texturally it’s somewhat creamier than most and it’s also more heavily seasoned, including a good amount of cumin.
Dessert at Turkish restaurants means baklava, or more specifically pistachio baklava. It’s not sodden with the dreaded corn syrup as some baklava tends to be. Instead, trust that real honey is used. This is a buttery, flaky pastry whose sweetness is mitigated with ground green pistachios. It’s homemade and is among the very best I’ve ever had.
THIRD VISIT – 12 JULY 2013: When John L, a very discerning gastronome whose opinions I value, wrote about a less than stellar dining experience at Anatolia, I surmised John must have visited on a rare off day. Still his comments hastened my return with my good friends Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver, Paul “Boomer” Lilly and Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott in tow. It was their first visit and they weren’t privy to any discouraging words about Anatolia. All three of them found their meals very enjoyable (especially the pistachio baklava) and promised to return.
The special of the day was leg of lamb shish kabob. At fourteen dollars, it was the most expensive item I’ve seen on Anatolia’s menu, but also one of the most delicious. The lamb was tender, moist and perfectly seasoned, but there wasn’t a lot of it, so each small bite was cherished with small bites. The special included a roasted green chile, rice and a salad. Only the rice was unremarkable.
Some psychologists credit the dissolution of the family unit as the reason behind America’s social ills. It’s also thought that families which dine together, stay together. In June, 2013, Urbanspoon put together its list of the most popular family-friendly restaurants in America and two Albuquerque eateries were on the list. Apparently Duke City families enjoy going out for non-American food because the two honorees were Anatolia Doner Kebab and Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining, both outstanding choices.
Don’t be surprised if Anatolia’s doner kebab makes it to my best sandwich list. That is if I ever get to try the doner kebab, which considering those fantastic specials of the day may not be too soon. Anatolia is a terrific Turkish restaurant in a city which welcomes diversity and has long been overdue for the authentic flavors, hospitality and deliciousness of Turkey.
Anatolia Doner Kebab House
521 Central, N.W., Suite 1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 July 2013
1st VISIT: 5 January 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Pistachio Baklava, Babaghannoug, Pita, Falafel, Combination Platter, Leg of Lamb Shish Kabob