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Huseyin Kamal in the driver's seat.
Huseyin Kamal in the driver's seat.

Turkish Delight

Huseyin Kamal in the driver's seat.
Huseyin Kanal in the driver's seat.

“...what gives a city its special character is not just its topography or its buildings but rather the sum total of every chance encounter…
– Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul

It wasn’t long after I started the New York adventures that I discovered I had to approach Big Apple hacks differently than Buenos Aires taxistas.

In Buenos Aires, I would hop in a taxi, tell the driver I had a strange request, wait for him to say “Bueno…”, then ask him to take me to his favorite place to eat. After about 30-60 seconds of general disorientation, he would usually come around and accept his role as the arbiter of my food fate.

When I used this strategy on my first few New York quests, I ran into more initial resistance than I expected. Though I could eventually persuade unsuspecting drivers to show me the way to their food, some of those journeys felt as awkward as a tango between beginners. I had to figure out a different way to move into the adventures in this hemisphere.

By the time Huseyin Kanal picked up my co-adventurer and me at the corner of 14th and Broadway on Saturday, I knew not to state my agenda right away. Holding my hunger in check, I asked him to take us to the corner of 28th and Lex and threw what is now my standard pitch to New York cabbies: “I’m a journalist. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions while we go?”

(On the rare occasion that the cabbie says ‘no,’ it’s a fairly good sign that he won’t be open to the quest, and I usually get out and hail another.)

Huseyin Kamal surveying the road. Photo by Lilian Moreira
Huseyin surveying the road. Photo by Lilian Moreira

In Huseyin’s case, he started answering my questions before I could even ask them. He used to be a salesman for Westco, he told us, but business got so bad that he was forced to start driving a cab two months ago. His girlfriend, who’s originally from Arizona, doesn’t like his new job at all.

Still, hacking is a step up from delivering baklava – the first job he had when he came to New York from Hatay, Turkey two years ago. He didn’t speak a word of English.

Thanks to his girlfriend, Huseyin is now fluent in English (“I owe her a language. I’m trying to teach her some Turkish”). Thanks to the baklava, he knows every Turkish restaurant in New York, and he has clear favorites.

The cabbie is “crazy about the chicken gyro” at A Bay Ridge Shish Kebab and Gyro, which also happens to be a block from his house. He claims that Güllüoglu Baklava and Cafe sells the best baklava in New York (He should know – he used to deliver it). Apparently they make the pastry in Istanbul and airlift it to Coney Island – and to Gulluolgu’s new Manhattan outpost – every day.

Huseyin's favorite Turkish restaurant in Manhattan. Photo by Lilian Moreira
Huseyin's favorite Turkish restaurant in Manhattan. Photo by Lilian Moreira

When the cabbie is longing for Adana kebab – the ground lamb brochette that is “like Philly cheese steak” in Turkey – he heads to Uskudar Turkish Restaurant, which is where he delivered us on Saturday.

Not only did Huseyin park his cab, walk us into the restaurant, and introduce us to the manager, he also taught us how to say hello in Turkish (merhaba), invited us to join him and his girlfriend for chicken gyros at A Bay Ridge Shish Kebab (we are so going), and gave me the address of his taxi garage (where there’s a chance they’ll let me put my new hack license to good use). How’s that for Turkish hospitality?

Huseyin convinces the manager to treat us like gold. Photo by Lilian Moreira
Huseyin (left) explains our quest to the manager. Photo by Lilian Moreira

After we profusely thanked Huseyin and hoped he could sense our gratitude, we got down to business at Uskudar, where they proudly display their New York Times reviews and Zagat plaques alongside white linens and blown glass. But there’s nothing pretentious about the service or the food, which is probably why Turkish émigrés (and all of us who love their food) have been filling the restaurant’s 10 tables since 1987.

Cold appetizers, Turkish style.
Cold appetizers, Turkish style.

The cold appetizer sampler offers one explanation for the restaurant’s popularity. I couldn’t decide whether the patlican (smoky, garlic-heavy eggplant salad) topped the humus, or whether I liked spinach tarator (with house-made yogurt, garlic and walnuts) better than fasulye pilaski (white bean and tomato salad).

What I did know: Uskudar’s stuffed grape leaves were some of the best I’d ever tasted (forget about the oily, mushy versions you find in so many places), their ezme (with fresh tomatoes, onions, parsley, walnuts and chili) conjured up summer in winter, and I would definitely order the appetizer sampler again.

Adana kebab with lamb.
Adana kebab with lamb.

We were still coming down from our appetizer high when we dove into Huseyin’s favorite Adana kebab in Manhattan. Served with a traditional onion and sumac salad, the lamb was ground with sweet red peppers, seasoned with paprika, and grilled to pink-tender. In the words of my co-adventurer: “This is really good.”

Uskudar's house-made baklava with pistachios
Uskudar's house-made baklava with pistachios

Since baklava was what brought Huseyin to Uskudar, we thought it only fitting to finish our feast with it, even though the restaurant now serves a house-made rendition instead of Güllüoglu’s flown-in-from-Istanbul version. I’d like to see how Güllüoglu’s baklava compares to Uskadar’s, which lets pistachios do their thing while honey and butter do just enough.

As if I needed further convincing that Turkey is worth visiting. Photo by Lilian Moreira
As if I needed further convincing that Turkey is worth visiting. Photo by Lilian Moreira

As we sipped our black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love Turkish coffee, my co-adventurer vowed to bring her boyfriend to Uskudar. Meanwhile, I fantasized about the possibility of combining hacking with baklava delivery – and the gyros in our future.

Uskudar Turkish Restaurant
1405 2nd Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan
Tel. (212) 988-2641‎
Open: 12pm-11pm, 7 days/week
Appetizers: $7-9; Mains: $15-20; Desserts: $6-7
Credit cards accepted
Lunch special, includes 1 appetizer and 1 main: $15.95 (cash only)

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