Where you from?" you'll hear the manager of Grill House Mediterranean ask customers when they come up to order. "Saudi Arabia? Yemen?" A fair question these days in his corner of the Tenderloin.
The neighborhood's mosques, as well as the cluster of markets and Pakistani restaurants that coalesced in the late 1990s, have drawn Yemeni, Tunisian, Turkish, and Moroccan immigrants, too. Culinarily, it's pretty much the best thing to happen to the Tenderloin since Little Saigon formed in the 1980s. At night, when the entrances to the bars are swarmed by three-pints-in smokers, groups of 20-something men in skull caps now gather over glasses of mint tea in places like Tajine and Cafe Zitouna.
Grill House Mediterranean, a new shawarma-and-pie shop that is nominally Turkish and totally halal, hasn't quite found its way in terms of food, but a stream of diners already flows through the place. Young women with second-skin jeans and long black hair converse in Turkish and French as they wait for their to-go order. Men with still-sparse beards and flowing white shirts lean into their wraps with the ferocious hunger of 22. In the window seat, a gay couple swab slices of bread through a meze platter. Men come in to shake hands and greet the cooks in Arabic, then leave.
The restaurant is owned by Salama Halal Meat, just around the corner on Geary. The manager claims the meat is fresh, never frozen — the lamb and goat come from local California farms that supply Muslim butchers, the chicken from Fulton Valley Farms. Chef Vahit Besir, a Chowhounder favorite from his days at Eden's Turkish Food, signed on to run the kitchen, though he has been in and out of the restaurant over the course of my visits, and his presence, or lack of it, makes the difference between excellent and marginal. After stopping by the place four times in the past two and a half weeks, often enough for the waitstaff to start greeting me like a neighbor and shake my hand when I paid the bill, I found it a hard restaurant to predict.
A case can be made for hitting Grill House later in the week, when the counter — what little there is of it — is stacked with overlapping trays of baked pies and desserts, and all the tubs of salads in the refrigerator case (all $3.99, or $10.99 for a combo) are full.
Swirls of discreetly garlicky hummus with pools of green olive oil in their valleys come to the table with sliced rounds of puffy breads sprinkled with nigella seeds. There's just enough smoke in the baba ganoush to let you know the eggplant was roasted on the grill, but it's not the dominant note — tahini and lemon are stirred in to the creamy spread, their flavors well balanced. Besir's taboule is more parsley than bulgur, its herbal flavor sharpened with lemon and minced onions. His piyaz salad of white beans, tomatoes, and chopped eggs is forgettable, the version with fava beans earthier and more distinct.
When they're fresh, the Turkish pies ($3.99) reheated in the oven, are almost as good as the ones at Gyro King on Grove. There are foot-long ovals rimmed in with puffy, soft dough, chopped chicken or crumbled feta and tomatoes in their centers, and golden triangles stuffed with braised spinach leaves, toasted sesame seeds scattered across the top adding a nutty edge. On slower days, a stale pie can get tossed in the microwave, toughening a crust already trending toward leathery. With the desserts, I learned to look for full trays as well because the pastries were uneven. The baklava filled with pistachios ($1.75) and the kunafa, a nest of wheat threads stuffed with ground, spiced nuts, varied between crackling and dull.
Two shawarma spits, one threaded with chicken and the other with beef and lamb, slowly turn around their glowing red cores, supplying both wraps ($6.99) and platters ($9.99). The meat coming off the spit can be cooked to a crisp, unless you're the fourth or fifth person in line to order them. Do not get the Alexander kebabs ($12.99), overcooked meat laid on a bed of store-bought croutons, smothered in a sugary tomato sauce and dollops of strained yogurt.
But the grilled-to-order kebabs are as good as anything in town: The kofte, ground lamb and beef meatballs, in the center of one wrap ($6.99) pulsed with garlic, enough to punch up the lettuce, pickles, and tahini sauce stuffed into the lavash roll along with the meat. And the adana kebab ($9.99), ground lamb formed around a sword-shaped skewer, came off the fire smoky, almost feral, and still red at the center. Its juices ran off the kebab to mingle with the rice pilaf underneath it, and I smeared dabs of cacik, cucumbers, and yogurt seasoned with a fruity dried sumac powder onto the kebab, spearing pickled cauliflower and carrots onto my fork between bites.
For a shawarma shop, Grill House Mediterranean is a pleasant place to spend a few hours. The nocturnal action on Jones Street can be entertaining or tragic, depending on your appetite for crack-fueled drama, but inside, chandeliers hang from the clouds painted on the ceiling and a pastel sky presides over faux fountains, courtyards, and mosques. To the right of the cash register, burgundy velour curtains frame the entrance to a smaller, windowless room painted in yet more idyllic scenes. Needless to say, that's where everyone chooses to eat.