If die-hard Chicagoans scoff when they see ketchup on a hotdog, then call me a die-hard Turk: I grew up with a Turkish father, who filled our home with the scent of zesty köfte kebap, and I recently returned from a cousin's wedding in Istanbul, where I noshed on juicy slices of yogurt-covered meat at outdoor cafes. I know authentic Turkish food, and I can tell you Oberlin, Ohio, doesn't have it. I went to college there, and finding a falafel that wasn't a slapped together, inedible hunk of chick peas proved impossible. But in Chicago, with two new Turkish joints in Lakeview and three well-established restaurants churning out spot-on eats, you can sample the cuisine the way my dad intended, provided a die-hard Turk tells you where to go and what to order.
Trade thin-crust pizzas for lahmacun at Nazarlik Turkish Cuisine
Husband-and-wife team Ahmet and Zeliha Aksoy, who hail from the city of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, bake an oversized, thin-crust, Turkish-style pizza called lahmacun at this newly opened spot. The tasty treat, covered in zesty minced meat and veggies, costs just $3.95 and comes with a side of fresh baba ghanoush for dipping. (Seriously, when was the last time you dipped pizza in anything besides that congealed oil and garlic mess at Papa John's?)
Taste yogurt like you've never imagined at Turkish Cuisine and Bakery
At this Turkish-owned-and-run spot, you'll discover how yogurt pays a crucial part in the country's cuisine. For only $11.50, taste the iskender kebap—tender layers of doner kebap, fried bread, yogurt and fresh tomato sauce. Using the slightly salty flavor of plain yogurt to balance the spicy mix of peppers and onion, head chef and owner Engin Cardak knows how to wow newcomers and regulars alike. Pair that with Ayran, a Turkish yogurt drink, and some pide, stuffed pies packed with mounds cheese, beef and egg, and you'll feel like an Ottoman Sultan. Better yet, stop by with bottle in hand (it's BYO) on a Saturday night for belly dancing and live music.
Feast on seafood with a largely Turkish crowd at Cafe Orchid
There's a no-nonsense, down-home–cookin' vibe at this new Turkish cafe in West Lakeview. Owner Kurt Serpin comes from the Mediterranean seaside town of Mersin, Turkey, and he takes his seafood seriously. Pan-seared mussels, difficult to find outside of Istanbul, are cooked daily here. Expect to find a hungry bunch of Turks chowing down on kabobs like the lamb shish—marinated cubes of tender lamb served with rice or wheaty bulgar—while watching Turkish TV in the backroom. Finish off the meal with strong, authentic tea served in an ornate hourglass-shaped cup.
Gorge on appetizers in a swanky setting at Turquoise Cafe
At this spacious, ground level restaurant in Roscoe Village, visitors have the option of dining outside on the well-lit sidewalk patio or inside the warm, dark wood-floored interior. The trick to dining like a Turk is to order a variety of sumptuous appetizers: a sampling of the crisp mujver, zucchini pancakes with Feta cheese, mint, dill and scallion served in a thick, garlicky yogurt sauce; a perfectly blended hummus; and a sampling of patlican salatasi, smoked eggplant with olive oil, garlic and roasted red pepper. Reservations are accepted; the place fills up quickly, so do phone ahead.
Have a touristy Turkish experience at A La Turka
This restaurant attracts the brave, the loud and the peeps that just want to get down tourist-style. Inside this hulking homage to the prosperous Ottoman Empire days, the owners go all out with the food and the entertainment. Thursday and Sunday are raucous nights of belly dancing, and customers enjoy hits of flavored tobacco at the second-floor hookah bar. Homemade dishes like the Mountain Kebob (dag kebabi), a heaping pile of juicy beef or chicken sauteed with onions, portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, zesty Turkish spices and a yogurt sauce, as well as other large entrees, all cost about $15. The full-on sensory experience of dining here might give some diners a headache, but those with a taste for adventure won't mind.