Editor’s note: In this ever-changing city, we like to rely on our usta at the oven or the grill to be there when we come in for a bite. But buildings are sold, opportunities arise across town, bankruptcy happens. One of our favorite cağ kebabı ustas even abandoned the spit for his previous calling as an electrician. We were sad to see İsmail’s spot at the oven down at Çıtır Lahmacun in Tophane filled by someone else and then pleasantly surprised to bump into İsmail on the street quite recently. He slipped us a fridge magnet with the telephone number and address of his new place in Taksim. We stopped in to see him and were happy to find him up to his old tricks. That is, making tasty lahmacun.
New address: Sıraselviler Caddesi, Hocazade Sokak 7, Beyoğlu (across from the entrance to the German Hospital)
Where Beyoğlu slopes down towards the Bosphorus in Tophane, a rough-around-the-edges district named after a nearby Ottoman-era cannon factory, there’s not much in the way of swanky eating. Judging by the great piles of husks on the sidewalk, sunflower seeds are the dietary staple of the neighborhood. Well, that and a spicy flatbread called lahmacun (pronounced lah-ma-joon).
Over at İsmail Kebapçısı, owner İsmail smiles broadly from his post by a blackened stone oven. He’s always got a little dough on him, and at lunchtime he’s making it hand over fist. İsmail grills up mincemeat kebabs and chicken şiş, but he clearly takes the most pleasure in plucking a small handful of dough, dusting it with flour and rolling it out matzo-thin on the marble slab before him. He pats on top of it a fine spread of ground meat, tomato, onion, red pepper paste and spices and then shoves it deep into the hearth with a long paddle. That’s about all there is to a preparing a lahmacun.
There have got to be a dozen other lahmacun makers within a four-block radius of İsmail. You may ask, “Why is this lahmacun different from all other lahmacun?”
“Because I think positively!” İsmail explained one day, twinkling eyes lit by a clear sense of duty.
We’re not inclined to doubt İsmail on that point. Positive thinking goes a long way in the kitchen and the proof is sitting right there on the end of his paddle. And İsmail is not the only one who thinks positively about his lahmacun. Around lunchtime, as fast as he can turn them out, İsmail passes steaming lahmacun to a delivery boy who sprints off to waiting customers.
The commercial strip that’s home to İsmail’s restaurant is teaming with esnaf, or the offices of small businessmen, who can be famously finicky about what they eat and how much they pay for it. Everyone seems to approve of his creations, although some prefer the lahmacun found at Yöremiz Pide, a bakery tucked back in the neighborhood. Their more heavily laden lahmacun is certainly worth a try, particularly if combined with a visit to next-door Tütün Deposu, a former tobacco warehouse turned art gallery.
Though it might resemble a wafer-thin, cheese-less pizza when it emerges from the oven, think of lahmacun as a kind of wrap. Before being rolled up, the lahmacun is loaded with a mound of fresh-cut parsley and an optional squeeze of lemon. A bite of this is at once spicy and tart, hot and cold, smoky and fresh, crispy and chewy. Such simple contrasts add up to a very complex snack. One of Istanbul’s best street eats, we think – positively!
Address: Boğazkesen Caddesi 11, Tophane, Beyoğlu
Address: Lüleci Hendek Caddesi 14, Tophane, Beyoğlu
Tophane Tütün Deposu
Address: Lüleci Hendek Caddesi 12, Tophane, Beyoğlu
(photo by Monique Jaques)