Last week, we wrote about our new favorite cake from Fatih Sarmacısı . We’d had our eye on this vintage-looking cake shop for quite a while but hadn’t had the chance to stop in for a slice and really explore the area until recently. It was lunchtime when we set out from Kadınlar Pazarı for the shop, so we thought we’d trust our instincts to guide us to a worthy pre-cake lunch spot. We popped into a few promising looking kebab shops but the coals of the grill were not yet ready so we kept moving along the small streets that run along the high stone walls of Fatih Camii. We found several perfect places for a çay break in the sun, but nothing really grabbed us for a quick honest meal. Almost ready to settle for cake for lunch, we spotted a fellow in an apron and paper hat working a döner spit in front of a restaurant not much wider than his prominent midsection.
The sign out front read “Mehmet Usta” and the hand-written menu board with no more than four or five items looked promising. Then, nearing the humble eatery, we saw the most homely and delicious-looking döner we’ve encountered in quite some time. Most small restaurants and büfes order their döner log from a factory and advertise its brand with pride – “We serve Bereket döner.” For some businesses, this is a sign of quality and consistency (remember that stories of döner made from seagulls or donkeys are well known in this city of a million spits) but not to Mehmet Usta. He buys his meat from a butcher, cuts it into flat filets and skewers it according to his own methods. Mehmet has been preparing his döner like this for 40 years, as all dönercis of his generation did. The result looks like a vertical cağ kebab , loosely packed cuts with much greater variation than the uniform döner of his competitors. Mehmet Usta’s döner isn’t shaved, it is carefully carved, and the result are not ribbons so much as morsels of döner.
We hold a deep respect for ustas like Mehmet who cling to the old ways, not for the sake of nostalgia but because it results in better food. In this case, it certainly did. We took a seat across from an older fellow in a postal worker jacket and followed his lead with a pilav üstü döner. Unlike a sandwich, which can hide the quality of the meat, döner over rice bears all. The French fries on the side of our plate were cold and stiff – something so consistently true of dönerci French fries that we can only assume it to be an act of protest against the French, or the potato – but the heap of döner over buttery rice was an excellent break from the norm.
We finished up and thanked Mehmet for his delicious döner, while he sat in the sun drinking a tea and getting a shoeshine before the lunch rush. “I make good soup, too,” he said.
Note taken, Mehmet. We’ll be back.
Address: Büyük Karaman Caddesi 3, Fatih (across from the gas station on the corner)
(photo by Ansel Mullins)