I could feel the heat from the döner kebab the moment I opened the door to Istanbul, the second Rego Park restaurant* that taxi driver Eduard Zavlanov recommended during our ride through Midtown Manhattan. When he’s craving Turkish food, the musician from Uzbekistan told me that this is his favorite spot.
When I walked into the dining room, a Süper Lig game was playing on the flat screen, and all eyes in the 75-seat dining room were on soccer. Syrup dispensers with yogurt and chili sauce rested on plastic tablecloths, and the menu was full of fanciful descriptions:
Gyro/Döner – Ground lamb is wrapped around a large vertical spit, grilled in front of an ingenious tier of charcoal fires
Karisik Izgara – A real fiesta of lamb…grilled to taste
Somewhere between the lamb fiesta and the ingenious tier of charcoal fires, I got lost in everything that sounded delicious and realized I’d forgotten to ask Eduard what he usually ordered.
I ended up with a platter of cold appetizers ($9.50) that was enough for three: hummus, lebne, white bean salad, Russian salad, baba ghanoush, patlician salatasi (grilled eggplant with garlic and herbs), mixed eggplant and two pieces of house-made bread.
The mixed eggplant with garlic and tomato sauce and the lebne – a thick, garlic-seasoned yogurt spread with walnuts – outshone everything else on the plate, including the subdued hummus. The bread was a perfect foil for all except the Russian salad, which held its own despite being the odd man in the ensemble.
Izgara kofte ($12.95) – one of eight lamb options on Istanbul’s menu – came next. The ground lamb patties were grilled to rosy, chock-full of sumac, and seriously salty, but still tasty – especially with the orzo-flecked rice and red cabbage and onion salad that came with them. But I wondered if the döner kebab would have been even better.
I didn’t wonder about anything when I tasted the brown top pudding ($4.00). This is Turkey’s answer to flan, with cinnamon and without eggs. Creamy and rich in all the right places, it was a beautiful dessert that made even the house-made baklava pale in comparison.
I’m guessing that Eduard has no idea that Rego Park, his adopted neighborhood, is now considered one of the best food districts in New York City – and that both of the restaurants he recommended to me are part of the reason. Still, this is a man who’s obviously tuned in to the treasures of where he lives – and who’s not afraid to share them.
95-36 Queens Blvd. – Rego Park (Queens)
Open: 11am-11pm, 7 days a week
Credit cards accepted
* Tandoori Food & Bakery, a Bukharan spot in Rego Park, is the other restaurant Eduard recommended. Click here to read about it.