One of the most common responses given as to why people choose to retire in Santa Fe is “because it’s so different.” While it may be true that the “City Different” is different from where respondents came, some native New Mexicans like my buddy Mike Muller postulate that Santa Fe has become the “City Same.” He’s talking about the architectural standards and city ordinances whose uniformity threaten to make Santa Fe a model of adobe-hued homogeneity. Mike points out that Santa Fe’s boring “sameness” hasn’t quite caught up with Albuquerque which in comparison is the rebellious kid in oversized jeans with underwear exposed to Santa Fe’s straight-laced, Catholic uniform-attired school girl.
For evidence he points out two architectural anomalies which would not make it in Santa Fe. One is the United Blood Services building whose sanguine facade can be seen a mile away. The other is the bright yellow building on Wyoming which houses Cafe Istanbul, a Mediterranean Grocery Store and Deli. In truth, Cafe Istanbul isn’t quite as bright today as it was in 2001 when Nick and Del Akkad launched their specialty store and deli. New Mexico’s bright sun has dulled the bright yellow somewhat, but it’s still bright enough to get your attention…and there’s nothing similarly colored in the immediate area. It stands out!
Color not withstanding, at Cafe Istanbul, you’ll find 2,200 square feet of deliciousness. Some is in the form of hard-to-find Middle Eastern specialty foods showcased in Cafe Istanbul’s well-stocked shelves and some is in the form of traditional Mediterranean dishes. Before Cafe Istanbul, some of the specialty items were literally impossible to find in Albuquerque. Many of the comestible items are imported directly from the Cradle of Civilization: Lebanon, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries.
You can pick up in bulk such specialty items as your favorite exotic Mediterranean cheeses, olives and even those briny pickles served with many Middle Eastern entrees. There are two freezers dedicated solely to various breads. You can also purchase by the pound, some of your favorite Middle Eastern entrees and appetizers: gyros meat, falafel, kababs, baba ganouj, tahini, taramasalata (carp roe which is sometimes referred to as Greek caviar), baklava and so much more. Do comparison pricing and you’ll find that Cafe Istanbul offers lower prices (and better variety, authenticity, experience, etc.) than the chains.
That variety includes the taste bud awakening spices that infuse Middle Eastern cuisine with its unique flavor and pungency: curry powder, cumin, coriander, green cardamom, tumeric and ground sumac (the non-poisonous member of the genus). One of the great benefits of shopping at Cafe Istanbul is that you don’t have to wait to get home to partake of Mediterranean fare. Smart shoppers plan a meal around their shopping.
The name “Cafe Istanbul” seems a bit anomalous in that the restaurant owners are actually Palestinian, not Turkish. If you consider, however, Istanbul’s prominence on the spice routes of Marco Polo, the name actually makes great sense. Even today Istanbul is renowned for spice markets replete with exotic and spices and seasonings which make Middle Eastern cuisine one of the most flavorful in the world. Those spices are in use on many of Cafe Istanbul’s offerings.
In recent years Cafe Istanbul has expanded its dining area, making it commodious enough for the throngs of hungry guests it attracts. Perhaps indicative of its authenticity, many of the female diners (as well as the kitchen staff) don Hijabs, the veils which cover women’s hair in Muslim countries. A mural on the west-facing wall in the dining area is of a caravan in which camels, the ship of the desert, ferry supplies across an arid expanse.
Arrive at Cafe Istanbul too early for lunch, however, and you might just find that some of the meat items aren’t quite ready. It’s worth the fifteen minute to half-hour wait for these tasty meat and lamb entrees to reach the height of their succulent, juicy peak. Besides, you can wait at the comfortable booths in the dining area while noshing on some of the cafe’s wonderful pre-prandial items. To quote perhaps the definitive blog on the subject of humus “Eat humus. Give chickpeas a chance.”
The humus at Cafe Istanbul is among the very best in the city. Humus, the Arab and Hebrew word for chickpeas, is made with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic. At Cafe Istanbul, ground sumac (which lends a slightly lemony flavor) is sprinkled liberally on top. Green olives, pickles and green tomatoes are strategically positioned for a deliciously, decorative touch. This humus plate is a thing of beauty–rich and redolent in flavor, just beckoning for pita bread.
Consider it folly if you will, but one of the best things to have with humus is baba ganouj (is there any better sounding food in the world?). At its elemental level, baba ganouj starts with roasted eggplant which is ground and mixed with various spices. You might never achieve consensus as to what spices go into baba ganoug. Options range from allspice and cinnamon to garlic and parsley. The only consensus is that, made right, it makes a delicious dip for warm pita bread and whatever else you might want to dip into it.
At Cafe Istanbul, the baba ganouj has a rich, creamy texture and is similarly spice-adorned to the humus. Don’t be repulsed by the greenish tomatoes. Use them to scoop up a hefty portion of humus or baba ganouj and you might just be asking for seconds on the tomatoes. You’ll certainly be asking for a double meat portion on your gyros. Cafe Istanbul’s rendition of this popular Greek sandwich is served with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and “special” sauce (tzatziki). The meat is succulent, juicy and tender, a delicious amalgam of beef and lamb shavings prepared on a vertical spit. These may be the most juicy gyros you’ll find in the Duke City.
The Saudi Arabian sandwich alternative to the Greek gyro is shawerma, marinated beef and lamb seasoned with various spices (sumac is most prominent) tucked into warm pita bread. Wow! Cafe Istanbul’s version of shawerma is unbelievably good. Tender tendrils of meat, onions, chopped tomatoes and spices on a soft, moist pita are in perfect meat to vegetable to bread ratio. There is also a nice textural and temperature contrast of warm bread against cool veggies and hot, seasoned meat that make each bite flavorful and adventurous.
Savvy diners will forgo the sandwich options and opt instead for gyros, kabob or shawerma platters. The platters include rice, humus, pickles, pita bread and tabbooleh, a refreshing salad made with parsley, mint, tomatoes, green onions and various spices. One of the reasons this is a good option is because you can make your own sandwich on the pita provided and still have several wonderful sides. Better still, order extra pita so you can scoop up those sumptuous sides. The warm pita at Cafe Istanbul is wonderful!
Traditionally, kebabs are a traditional Turkish dish made from meat roasted vertically on a spit. Kebabs are closely related to gyros from Greece and other traditional spit-roasted meats from around the Mediterranean and Middle East. Sometimes the interpretation can be a bit liberal. The kebabs at Cafe Istanbul barely resemble gyros meat at all. Instead, the amalgam of beef and lamb is cubed into bite-sized pieces and seasoned liberally with sumac. The kebab platter (pictured below) is quite good.
To bring full authenticity to your dining experience at Cafe Istanbul, you’ll want to enjoy a cup (or three) of Turkish coffee, an unusually strong sweetened coffee made with unfiltered coffee grounds. Turkish coffee (like Vietnamese coffee) is an acquired taste even for coffee aficionados. It’s served in small cups of perhaps three ounces of liquid. Drink too much of it and you just might start pinging off the walls.
Finish your meal with a dessert of Baklava, the most famous of Lebanese pastries, although they are also popular in other Middle East countries and more closely associated with Greece. This sweet pastry is made using numerous sheets of phyllo dough with butter brushed between each layer. My favorite of Cafe Istanbul’s baklava is layered with pistachios which are widely available throughout Turkey. the ground pistachios help cut the cloying combination of honey and sugar which top baklava.
Everything at Cafe Istanbul is made fresh daily and no preservatives are used. Everything is also delicious and inexpensive. Two can eat very well for about thirty dollars.
1415 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 03 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Shawerma, Gyros, Baba Ganouj, Humus