The border between Turkey and Syria is 500 miles long, dotted by hundreds of little villages and anchored by small, fully-functioning cities (complete with airports). There’s plenty of street food: kebab stands, men slinging long footprints of cheese or meat-strewn pide (flatbreads), little storefronts and carts where you can grab a cone of chewy, dense Turkish ice cream for under fifty cents. If you want to sit outside on a stool, drink tea, smoke cigarettes and eat mediocre food with old men, there are many, many options. But there are two spots worth a visit, should you find yourself in the area: places where the A/C is on, the food is fresh, and you’ll be fed until you burst.
The best place in the town of Gaziantep is Imam Cagdas, a restaurant that’s been in business since 1887 and still draws crowds at all hours of the day. Tables are crammed with businessmen, families, and couples; people walk in to buy tins of baklava and giant to-go pizza boxes of lahmacun, a cheeseless pizza topped with spicy minced meat and vegetables.
The friendly servers will guide you to your table and hand out menus: go nuts. Everything is impeccable. Among the salads, try the Esme, a pureed salad of tomatoes, onion, red pepper, mint and pomegranate molasses — it’s a bit like a toothsome, sweet-spicy salsa. The City Salad comes piled high with tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pomegranate and walnuts. Dab at your plates with the wood-oven discs of bread that arrive piping hot in baskets.
The grilled meats are amazing: tender cubes of lamb, marinated chicken, and the Turkish kebab of blackened eggplant stuffed with minced meat. But the stellar dish on the table was the Ali Nazik Kebabi: spicy grilled meat served atop yogurt and eggplant puree. It’s both kicking and cooling, crispy and soft, earthy and tart. What you don’t shovel in by spoon you will sop up with bread. Get two.
Ayran, the Middle Eastern drink made by blending yogurt, salt, and water, is served here in individual bowls with little ladles. And they are famous (rightfully so) for their baklava, which can be ordered in the traditional variety (layered walnuts, honey & phyllo dough), stuffed with walnuts and sweet cheese, or made as tightly wound little pockets of pistachios.
Should you find yourself further south, in the town of Suruc, about one mile from Syria, get thee to Edessa, a large (by Suruc standards) cafe staffed by charming young men and home to a kitchen-wide wood-burning stove. The chopped salad is a fine starter made bright by parsley and lemon, but the thing to order here is a mixed grill platter: an impressive array of chicken, lamb, spicy minced meat, and charred vegetables. We had them throw on some cheese pide just for added decadence.
Service is so lovely here they brought over a pitcher of ayran without asking, and when tea was called for, they wandered up the road and came back with cay (chai) from the teahouse up the street.
On road trips, I always have such high hopes for pitstops… wondering if this place will be the hidden gem; hiding my disappointment when it’s not. Ending up eating for the calories instead of the enjoyment. What a pleasant surprise to find these two diamonds on this rough, dusty road.
Food photos by Omar Omar.
If you go:Imam Cagdas Şahinbey, Uzun Çarşı No:49, Gaziantep, Turkey
+90 342 231 2678 www.imamcagdas.com Edessa, Kebap Ve Lahmacun Salonu Dr Bozan Erdem Caddesi No 50, Suruc, Turkey +90 541 611 2325