Istanbul Grill: straight up good food

When I received my September issue of Westways magazine (from AAA), I did my usual by flipping straight to the food section. This month’s feature was Istanbul Grill, a place I had not heard of. Very soon after reading this piece, I started seeing friends of mine post photos and praises on Facebook, which piqued my interest even more. So when it came time to lunch with a friend recently, I suggested we hit it up and see what the buzz was all about.

If you’re coming off the 405 you won’t be able to see it clearly. It is right across the street from the Costco plaza, right where Flamebroiler and Cancun Fresh are. We arrived early, in fact, a few minutes before they opened, but there were already others waiting to be seated.

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I wasn’t sure what we were in for when we saw the Lunch Specials ($8.95) but once the items started arriving, we were amazed at what a bargain it was! You start with some pita along with a lovely dip. An appetizer of your choice and an entree before you end with a Turkish dessert.

A dish of sun-dried tomato in olive oil is perfect to dip pita bread in. But don’t fill up because there is a lot more to come.

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My friend and I both order the lunch special — with different selections — along with the Appetizer Sampler ($12.95) to start. We didn’t realize how big this would be and gasped at the platter of hummus, babaganoush, stuff grape leaves, spicy chopped salad and labne, enough for four to six people. I was especially impressed with the stuffed grape leaves because it’s usually not a favorite of mine.

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The appetizer portion of the lunch specials began with Ezogelin Corba, a lentil soup consisting of red lentils, potatoes, celery, carrots and onions. I enjoyed its consistency, however, it was served almost at room temperature — a major turn-off for me unless it is chilled soup. I mentioned it to the server and he told me some customers complained it burned their lips so they are now serving it lukewarm. It mind-boggles me that adults don’t have the common sense to blow on their soup before eating. The soup was lovely, but next time, I am going to tell them I want mine piping hot.

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Ezme was the other appetizer we selected — although if you’re going to order the sampler, choose something else. Finely chopped tomatoes, onions and hot peppers are mixed with olive oil and herbs. Flavors are intricately layered with a hint of heat which hits you towards the end. I loved it.

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I believe one of the most recognizable dishes in Mediterranean cuisine is Doner Kebab. Marinated lamb and beef are placed on to a vertical rotisserie and grilled slowly while it rotates. Slices of the meat are hand carved right before serving leaving it tender and very moist. The accompanying yogurt dip pairs well with the meat.

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We also selected Okra Stew with Lamb as our second entree. I was surprised by the miniature okra in the stew, each the size of half a pinkie and very tender. I inquired about these delightful morsels and found out they are imported brined okra from Turkey. The dish possessed a little too much red pepper for my taste, but it did not overpower the overall composition of the dish. You can opt for the vegetarian version of this sans lamb.

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What stood out most about the food here is how light it was. There isn’t an abundance of oil and the stew wasn’t heavy. It reminded me of very good home-made cuisine, which I’m guessing is the attraction of the restaurant.

Istanbul Grill is definitely worth the hype it has been receiving. Food is good, really good, plus service is so warm and friendly. If you go for lunch during the weekday, I suggest going early or later, as it does tend to packed. I’ll definitely be back to try some new things in a few weeks.

Istanbul Grill
18010 Newhope
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Tel: 714-430-1434

Istanbul Grill on Urbanspoon

affordable deliciousness at The Kebab Shop San Diego

I’m on a Mediterranean kick first with Sababa on Tuesday, and now, The Kebab Shop in San Diego. Years ago, I visited the original location of The Kebab Shop in downtown San Diego (found it on Yelp) and remember absolutely loving it. This time, I went to their latest location in Mission Valley and was surprised to find that this is the 6th store!!

This location is in a convenient spot, across the street from Macy’s Home Store at Mission Valley mall and gets good traffic during lunch time! I loved the spits with the meats roasting away in the back.

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We managed to try a lot of things like Lamb Doner ($6.99), a nice wrap using flatbread which isn’t overly thick. The meat was moist and flavorful and the combination of the lettuce, tomatoes and sauce was absolutely delicious! And so reasonable!

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The Shish Kebab Plates are also awesome and comes with a salad and a side of fragrant basmati saffron rice. Salmon Kebab ($10.99) is seasoned well and great for those who are not wanting meat.

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Meat lovers can opt for the Beef Kofte ($9.79), so perfectly seasoned and juicy. A side of dill sauce is served alongside and it goes so well with the meat.

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You can also choose Chicken Kebab ($9.79), chicken breast, again, nicely seasoned and very flavorful. There is nothing worse than under-seasoned meat and you will definitely not find that here.

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If you didn’t want a skewer plate, then there are rotisserie plates  with lamb, chicken or falafel with one hot side and one fresh salad for only $8.99. We had enough sides so we just sampled the meat (lamb to the left and chicken to the right).

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I love Falafel ($2.59) and the ones here are light, not greasy and a great choice for vegetarians. I always like to try falafels at a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant because it is actually not easy to create a well textured falafel which doesn’t end up dense and heavy.

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They have lots of Fresh Salads ($3.99/8.99 for 3) — nine of them! Ideal accompaniments to go with your meal or just as is.

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Some of my favorites include:

Algerian Eggplant — tender pieces of eggplant with strong flavors including cumin.

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Even my friend who I didn’t think liked Tabouli loved it. The parsley salad was finely chopped and very fresh!

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The most surprising item was the Macaroni Salad. It was so delicious I couldn’t stop eating it. Don’t laugh, but it had bits of imitation bacon in it, and I really think that’s what kicked up the flavor!

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Fast, casual restaurants are the “in” thing these days. You get high quality food at a fraction of the cost and you’re out the door really quickly. I wish we had one of these here in Orange County. There are lots of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurants around but a fast casual place serving such deliciousness is lacking! I would love one in the strip mall down the street, I’d be there all the time! In fact, I’m salivating just writing this post!

The Kebab Shop
1570 Camino de la Reina
San Diego, CA 92108
Tel: 619-491-0279

The Kebab Shop on Urbanspoon

Open Sesame remains consistent through the years

It’s been years since my last visit to Open Sesame and when a high-school alumni I had connected with recently at my high school reunion told me he dined there every week, and invited me to join in, I eagerly drove up to Long Beach to join him.

When I arrived, a few items were already on the table and I helped myself to the pita bread and Hummus ($5.99) with relish. The hummus is beautiful, not dry whatsoever. There is a generous drizzle of olive oil pooling in the middle of the bowl which added an even silkier texture.

I’ve eaten quite a few kibbehs in my time and the Kibbi ($7.95/2pcs) here are delicious. Stuffed with ground meat and pine nuts, these little football-like appetizers are light and moist and perfect with a dollop of cucumber yogurt dip.

Interestingly, my friend didn’t order off the menu, instead, he told the server what he wanted and items were brought out. A skewer of lamb ($10.49/8pc) consisted of cubes of grilled lamb cooked to your desired temperature and served with a parsley, onion salad seasoned with sumac.

The same sumac-infused salad comes with Kafta ($8.49/2pcs) which are very good as well (although I love the one at Jack’s Bakery even more — they are called luleh kebabs there), seasoned ground meat formed into two skewers and grilled. I slathered mine with some of the delicious yogurt dip which we ordered an extra side of ($4.99).

But what I think I loved the most was the skewer of Tawook ($7.99/5pcs). The chicken was perfectly seasoned and very moist. The best part of this dish is the garlic sauce served alongside. It is fluffy and very flavorful although I would’ve liked a stronger garlic taste.

The side of Rice ($2.99) was very tasty indeed. I normally do not like rice with raisins in it but here, the raisin did not overpower and the rice was not overly sweet. I was surprised I liked it as much as I did.

I plan to join in on this weekly rendezvous once a month if I am able. Open Sesame has always delivered on the numerous occasions I’ve visited and I walk away highly satisfied with the experience every time.

Open Sesame
5215 E 2nd Street
Long Beach, CA 90803
Tel: 562-621-1698

Open Sesame on Urbanspoon

A reunion Middle Eastern style

My friend Nouhad invited the kid and I to lunch in the SoHo area of Hong Kong and since Nouhad is Lebanese Australian, she wanted to take us to this small Lebanese restaurant she liked to go to.

My son and I arrived a few minutes early and after we were seated I noticed a man (presumably the owner) behind the counter staring at me. He smiled and I smiled back thinking he was being friendly. However, he seemed somewhat familiar and I couldn’t help stealing stares back when he wasn’t looking trying to place him.

It wasn’t until the menus were given to me by our server that everything fell into place! The restaurant is named Assaf and I immediately realized that name and of course, the man behind the counter. I first met him about 18 years ago when he arrived in Hong Kong to manage Beirut, the first Lebanese restaurant in the territory.

When Nouhad arrived, he walked over and I say “you are Joseph Assaf, no?” and his response “yes, I thought I knew you! I recognized you the minute you walked in, that’s why I was looking at you” — and I thought he was checking me out — KIDDING!!

We began with an array of the usual appetizers. Hummus is lovely, and I immediately sat back to think about how I am having a Middle Eastern meal in Hong Kong, and it is authentic in taste and presentation. This is the beauty that is Hong Kong. You are in the heart of Asia, yet, the availability of cuisines is astonishing — except for good Mexican food!

Babaghanoush is always my favorite and it is nicely textured here albeit, I couldn’t taste much of the “grilled” or “roasted” part of the eggplant.

We ordered Tabbouleh which is a light and refreshing way to contrast the creamy and heavy dips. The dressing was okay, but strangely there was no bulgur wheat in the salad.

Haloumi is something I’ve made at home. It is readily available at the Middle Eastern grocery stores and so easy to prepare. For Hong Kong, I guess haloumi can be an exotic, luxurious item and therefore, privy only to restaurants. We ended up getting two orders of the haloumi.

I love falafels and these did not have the green hue I was accustomed to. Still, they were crunchy on the outside and nicely crumbly on the inside.

We got a plate of garlic spread, chili sauce and yogurt sauce and had to refill the garlic spread a few times because it was just too good to resist.

I ordered the kofta for the kid since he can’t live on vegetarian food alone and the one here is seasoned beautifully. I remember the first time I ate Lebanese food in Hong Kong and how everything was served with French fries. Seems like it still remains true.

Joseph was kind enough to send along a plate of chicken which was flavorful and the kid loved it so much he abandoned the kofta.

We also received an array of lovely desserts including baklava and halva. I usually dislike halva because it can be overly sweet and very chalky in consistency. The one here was delightful, very crumbly and only a little bit sweet with hints of rosewater. Joseph tells us he gets this imported from Lebanon from a special place.

I was happy to break up my Chinese meals with a Lebanese one and especially so when I got to see a familiar face. When we were leaving, Joseph and I said our goodbyes and hope our paths will cross again soon.

Assaf
37 Lyndhurst Terrace
Central
Hong Kong
+852 2851 6550

Ararat — the only Armenian eatery in OC

You just have to drive to Anaheim to know that a host of Mediterranean restaurants is your’s for the picking ranging from Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian but when it comes to Armenian, I’m a newbie at it. On top of that, there seems to be only one Armenian restaurant in the whole of OC which makes it hard for me to know what exactly to expect. So, all I can go by in terms of judging is the myriad of other Mediterranean cuisines I am familiar with and love.

When an OC Register reader wrote in and asked me to venture out to Anaheim to try this cuisine, I asked Selene to come with me and in turn, she brought along two of her friends (Marcus and Vu) to tag along on this eating adventure.

I was the first to arrive, right at 11.30am when they should’ve opened, but I found the parking lot deserted and the restaurant dark and empty. The doors were locked and I was confused. After much consultation via text with Selene, we were ready to move to another location and as I pulled out of my parking spot, I thought I saw movement inside.

I walked over and peered inside, saw a lady inside and knocked on the window mouthing “are you open” and received a nod in response. I guess they’re not a stickler for punctuality — it was now 11.50am.

After further communication with Selene et al, I proceeded inside the restaurant to wait for them to arrive. The decor is sparse and I’m starting to notice a pattern here with Mediterranean restaurants in and around Anaheim. They don’t dwell on design or making their space look pretty. I only hoped the food was good.

Since everyone was starving I suggested we order a mezze plate to share while we decide on what our entrees would be.

Ararat Mezze ($6 small/$8 large) consisted of hummus, metabbal, yalanchee sarma, boureg, tabbouleh and falafel.

I liked how the hummus was nice and tart with a good amount of lemon juice throughout. Tahini, garlic and olive oil were all perfectly mixed in that I didn’t feel it required any more tweaking (which I normally do with hummus). It had a lovely creamy consistency without tasting the least bit dry. This was a hit with me.

Whenever I eat Mediterranean food, my favorite is the eggplant dip and here it is called metabbal, a cream of eggplant blended with sesame extract, garlic and lemon. It is similar to babaghanoush and had a good smokiness to it, just the way I liked. It was also roughly blended which is always nice, giving it texture instead of pure creaminess.

No one at the table particularly liked the yalanchee sarma which are like similar to Greek dolmas. I don’t like cold rice and this one was wrapped way too tightly with the grape leaves that they tasted dry and compressed. Marcus didn’t like them cold and wondered if they would be better hot — well, we were about to find out a little later the answer to that question.

I usually love boureg (especially those from Jack’s Bakery) but the one here were made with puff pastry and had hardly any filling inside. It wasn’t like any bouregs I’ve ever had. What I am used to are the ones stuffed with a lot of meat and cheese or vegetables and cheese. These were just like, well, eating puff pastry.

Our falafels were served on a separate plate and these were outstanding! They were fried perfectly that the outside was crispy while the inside remained soft and light. A tahini-based sauce was served alongside. It is creamy and not the least bit heavy which made for a good accompaniment to the falafels and more.

At $8, the large mezze plate was a really good deal and frankly, we were quite full after that. So when our entrees arrived I was glad to see the portions were small.

We were also given pita bread to eat with our dips and appetizers. It was a generous amount and our server told us she would bring us more if we needed it.

A bowl of salad with a simple lemon juice, olive oil and dried mint dressing was brought out for us to share.

Whenever I eat Mediterranean food, my inclination is to go towards the koftas, or something similar. It is usually seasoned ground meat shaped into a sausage and grilled.

Lulah Kebab ($6) were made with ground beef, onion, parsley, red peppers and herbs. I liked its flavor although they were very over-cooked and very dry, I doused them with the extra tahini sauce leftover from the falafels.

Selene’s Kebab Combination ($9) comprised one each of lulah kebab, chicken and beef but unfortunately, none of them had the “wow” factor. The chicken was super dry but nicely seasoned while the beef was tender but under-seasoned. Go figure!

When Marcus’ Green Pepper Dolmah ($7) arrived I made pre-conceived judgements before I’d even try it because it really was unattractive. I was so skeptical at first but after trying it found it quite delicious. These mild green peppers are stuffed with rice and ground beef and drizzled with a full-flavored meaty sauce that was rich in both consistency and flavor. This was surprisingly the tastiest entree of the lot.

The server was really sweet and after Marcus’ question about the stuffed grape leaves being served warm, she brought us a plate of them, piping hot, with the same filling as the peppers and the meaty sauce. We all agreed this was indeed a lot more palatable than the yalanchee sarma.

At the end of the meal, along with the check comes a plate of sesame cookies, which, I really liked. They’re crispy and filled with sesame seeds and I wouldn’t have minded taking a little bag of these home.

Our experience was a hit and miss. If you do come here, stick with the appetizers and you’ll undoubtedly enjoy what you get. Service is so warm and friendly you may almost forget that some dishes were really “blah” — okay, I said ALMOST!

Ararat Armenian Cuisine
1827 W Katella Avenue
Anaheim, CA 92804
Tel: 714-778-5667

Ararat Armenian on Urbanspoon

>Jack’s Bakery — much more than just baked goods

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**An abridged version of this article can also be found on OC Register’s Food Frenzy**

I’ve been a huge fan of middle eastern pizzas ever since I found out about them after moving to southern California 4 years ago. Ever since then I’ve been trying them out at various places specializing in them. Therefore, I guess it is not surprising that other cultures eat pizzas other than Italians and Americans. In the middle east, pizzas are quite the rage and eating them for breakfast is quite common, and although each region offers a slightly different variation, they all ultimately taste reasonably similar.

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Owner Jack is Armenian, but has lived in Lebanon and speaks a host of the languages including Turkish and English, as he proudly proclaims. But an Armenian bakery/restaurant in the middle of Little Saigon? There is my favorite com tam place across the street and my favorite pho ga place right around the corner. And then, there’s Jack’s in the middle of the strip mall where a Vietnamese catering business and a barber shop shares the same lot.

I found out about Jack’s Bakery a few years ago from my friend Holly (Savored) and since then I’ve been going on and off whenever I felt like something middle eastern and didn’t want to travel too far. Ironically, I’ve never been to Jack’s with Holly, until now.

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Last week, Holly and I were meeting for lunch and she suggests we go to Jack’s Bakery. I am excited because it’s been a while since my last visit and I was actually craving some of the delicious fare from this place. The minute we enter, Jack and his wife warmly welcome Holly like a long lost daughter and spent a good portion of time chatting to her.

I took the opportunity to peruse the menu on the wall and mentally make a note of everything I want to try. They’ve renovated the interior since my last visit and there are new photos up on the wall.

Naturally, we order too much seeing Holly wants specific items while I have my favorites I don’t want to miss. We decide to get everything our hearts desire and sat down to wait for Jack and his wife to cook it for us. Everything is cook-to-order so do not expect this to be fast food.

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The restaurant is very small, seating at most, 15 people. There are a few chairs and tables outside as well as inside, but generally, people order and take out. Jack has a lucrative catering business as well so during the holidays he is busy preparing turkeys and whole roasted lambs for his customers.

Our food arrives and we start our mouthwatering feast with kuftes ($1.50) also known as kibbeh. These look like miniature footballs with a ground beef or lamb with pine nuts filling. The exterior is traditionally bulgar and these little delightful pockets are fried to crispy perfection. The menu shows a kufte platter, but if you are on your own, Jack will let you order a couple, even one if that’s what you want. The kuftes here are some of the best and not greasy like other places.

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One of my favorites is the Armenian pizza, thin and topped with a minimal mixture, I can eat 2 or 3 of these in one sitting if I don’t eat anything else. Lahmajun are really tasty with tomato and ground meat and quite common in various middle eastern cuisines. Each region makes them a little differently and these taste similar to the ones I’ve had at a Lebanese bakery, perhaps an influence from Jack’s time in Lebanon.

Boyreg ($3.50-$7) are another delicious alternative to the pizza. They look like little pockets filled with anything from spicy cheese to sujuk (dry spicy sausage) or basturma (air-dried cured meat) and can also be topped with an egg. I highly recommend getting the egg because it adds a different texture and flavor to the usual boyreg.

Loaded manaish ($3) is similar to the pizza but topped with tomatoes, onions, olives, mint and some herbs and spices. It is rolled up, eaten like a wrap and wonderfully refreshing, a good selection for vegetarians or those staying away from meat.

Armenian bagel

Adana Kebab ($12) is what I come here for. Ground beef and lamb are combined with a blend of herbs and spices, grilled, and served with rice pilaf, hummus and an onion salad sprinkled with sumac. The seasonings on the meat is unbelievable and the meat is cooked to perfection so when you cut into it, the juices run out and when you take a bite, it is so juicy and moist on the inside you have to be careful not to burn your mouth.

If Jack has these “Armenian bagels” available, I urge you to try some. They are coated with sesame seeds and have a slightly sweet taste to them. They are excellent with coffee or tea and I love the fragrance of sesame seeds with my pastries.

Jack is extremely personable and if you’re unfamiliar with this sort of food, don’t be afraid to go in. He is happy to help you out and explain his wares to you. Just remember, the next time someone tells you they are craving pizza, bring them here! You won’t regret it.

Jack’s Bakery, 10515 McFadden Ave, Ste 107,Garden Grove, CA 92843. Tel: 714-775-6773 (corner of McFadden and Ward)
Jack's Bakery