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Go just about anywhere in the world and you'll find that the tastiest, most authentic regional foods aren't found in four-star hotels or carefully sanitized McRestaurants but at sidewalk food stalls, tiny counter joints, and rickety storefronts once or twice removed from the touristed boulevards. This is particularly true on the streets of Istanbul, where grilled, skewered mutton and hot, buttery pastries are as fragrantly enticing as Japanese yakitori, Roman pizza, or Chicago hot dogs.
A La Turca, a 2-month-old eatery with its fair share of Old World charm, serves San Francisco's most authentic Turkish food out of an unimpressive yet pristine setting on the edge of the Tenderloin. It's not unlike its neighbors Shalimar, Cordon Bleu, and Saigon Sandwiches, three equally tiny storefronts that help make this low-rent neighborhood one of the best in the city for inexpensive, top-flight ethnic food. Although it is similar to other Eastern Mediterranean/Persian Gulf cookery traditions -- skewered meats, stuffed grape leaves, a preponderance of yogurt, eggplant, and anise -- Turkish food is often considered the most dreamily delicious of all Middle Eastern cuisines. Friends with an intimate knowledge of the real thing talk about it with the same tone of sensual longing you or I might use to discuss Belgian chocolate or really good barbecue.
One reason may be Turkey's longtime status as the gateway between East and West (Europe and Asia meet within its borders), resulting in culinary intermingling throughout its history. Another might be its tradition of opulent dining, or perhaps its enviable location between the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas. In any event, the kebabs, breadstuffs, and pastries prepared and served at the country's local outpost are among the best I've tasted.
869 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
Sigara borek $3.75
Black Sea pies $3.75 each
Lamb shish kebap $8.75
Turkish coffee $1
Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Muni: 19, 38
Noise level: moderate
A La Turca is located in a block of Geary with a distinctly Turkish look about it: The apartment building across the way is adorned with Byzantine columns and arches and a small minaret, and the restaurant itself is in a long, low building with Ottoman Empire-esque flourishes along its roofline. Things are less exotic inside, where a bright, cheerful, upscale-taqueria ambience predominates. In fact, the most striking part of the bare-bones dining area is the tidy open kitchen along one wall, in which a trio of chefs in crisp whites and full toques pulls freshly made delicacies from massive ovens.
The friendly staff will help you navigate the menu (or the display case, if you want to get a snack to go). Start with sigara borek -- long, slender, cigar-shaped pastries stuffed with melted feta that come to the table hot and crisp from the deep fryer. Or try stuffed grape leaves, far superior to any in my experience: rich, dense, and robust with the flavors of pine nuts, carrots, and herb-scented rice. Cacik, a cold yogurt soup spiced with dill, oregano, garlic, and cucumber, is refreshing enough, but it's served here as a sort of dipping sauce that accentuates its watery blandness. Better to order the combo platter of spreads and sauces, an elaborate smorgasbord of lemony hummus; satin-smooth baba ghanouj; chunky, garlicky grilled eggplant salad; barbunya pilaki, a traditional (and rather boring) concoction of boiled brown beans, potatoes, and tomato sauce; and (best of all) ezme, a nice 'n' spicy salsalike mixture of roasted peppers, walnuts, onions, and tomatoes. These spreads are delicious with the house-baked bread, a spongy, chewy improvement on focaccia sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds that's replenished as quickly as you can eat it.
Another example of the kitchen's oven-centric skills is the Black Sea pie, a large, stuffed turnover (not unlike a calzone) served on a thick board. A light, crunchy crust encloses one of five fillings (including chicken-pineapple!), of which the spinach has enough fresh-from-the-farm flavor to keep Popeye healthy for a month or two, and the feta-tomato oozes fragrant, bubbly, hot cheese. Lahmacun, perhaps best described as Turkish pizza, isn't as memorable as the pie; although its thin, chewy crust is a delight, the minced lamb and green pepper topping lacks oomph.
Among the specialty platters (dishes served with rice and a small salad) is Alexander kebap, a puzzling and rather unexciting mishmash of bread cubes, tomato sauce, yogurt, and lamb strips. A better bet is beyti kebap, a robust variation on the aram sandwich, in which tender house-made lavash bread wraps around spicy patties of ground lamb and beef. It comes with a yogurt sauce laden with chopped garlic that's terrific spooned onto the meat. If you want some of Turkey's grilled and skewered specialties, order the combo grill. The lamb shish kebap is juicy and smoky with a marvelous citrusy afterbite, and the chicken, though not as supple, is equally tasty. Sharing the platter are thin slices of lamb and beef gyro that differ in texture but are similarly infused with the essence of the spit, and kofte, the Turkish hamburger of ancient tradition, a thick succulent patty of ground lamb and beef loaded with zesty flavor.
As of this writing, A La Turca has yet to receive its wine and beer license, but the place does offer ayran, a tart, refreshing glass of plain yogurt lightly salted and diluted to the drinkable stage, as well as tea attractively served in tiny fluted glasses on cut-glass saucers. Best of all, there's Turkish coffee. Turkey introduced the beverage to Europe in the 16th century, and the country's method of brewing and drinking it is coffee at its most essential. An Armenian aficionado told me that "you have to approach it with a different attitude; it's not your standard Starbucks latte, and you don't expect it to be very good at all, but it's wonderful." Rapidly boiling water is mixed with very finely ground coffee and served, grounds and all, with lots of sugar in a tiny, beautifully enameled cup. The result is a thick, syrupy couple of ounces of concentrated, jet-black, bittersweet caffeine above and beyond the most intense espresso.
It's the perfect complement to A La Turca's wide array of unapologetically sweet pastries. Many of them are flaky, buttery, honey-drenched variations on baklava, but far more luscious than the dried-out pretenders you find around town. One example is vezir parmagi, four slender fingers of crunchy phyllo saturated with honey and sprinkled with pistachios. Another is bulbul yuvasi, in which the establishment's cloudlike phyllo forms the shape of a snail around the walnut-rich filling, which is so intermingled with the pastry that it's difficult to discern one from the other. Kunefe is a pocket of dough stuffed with melted sweet cheese that gets rubbery as it cools, but it's a satisfying collection of tastes and textures just the same. Best of all is kadayif, a hillock of delicate phyllo filled with crushed pistachios and clarified butter and set on a bed of lemon-scented honey syrup. A more refreshing dessert alternative is sutlac, a homespun, simple, barely sweetened rice pudding with a delicate flavor.
After dinner or a nosh, it's a convenient pleasure to go next door to the Ha Ra saloon and sip some Wild Turkey, look at the boxing photos on the wall, and listen to one of the city's great little-known jukeboxes. Or you might want to head half a block west to Edinburgh Castle for a snifter of single malt, a game of stick, and the occasional tortured poetry reading. This is one neighborhood with definite possibilities, most of them unsung and exotic.