By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The hottest selling fast-food item in Germany has nothing to do with sausages or any type of grub stemming from American franchises. It is instead a sizable serving of slow-cooked meats sliced from vertical spits and swaddled in flatbread with chopped veggies and powerful yogurt-garlic sauce.
Known as döner kebabs and consumed widely by late-night clubbers throughout Holland, Belgium, France and Scandinavia as well, they’re now readily available in a neighborhood near you at The Kebab Shop.
The homegrown San Diego chain captures some of the modern-day street food that Turkish immigrants began introducing to Western Europe decades ago. The döner kebabs, in particular, are a big draw. They were supposedly invented in the early 1970s by a Turk living in Berlin, who began consolidating all the components of a traditional kebab plate into pillowy lavash bread — the meat, salad and whatever condiments.
Much like a burrito, with one half enveloped securely in butcher paper or foil, they allow consumers to eat a substantial meal while walking, biking or driving.
Beyond its original East Village location, The Kebab Shop has spawned locations in Mission Valley, Little Italy, Mira Mesa, Encinitas and Rancho Bernardo. The menu at each features wraps, sandwiches, plates and boxes spotlighting slices of lamb and beef combined, as well as chicken, salmon or crispier-than-average falafel.
If this is beginning to sound like common Eastern Mediterranean food, it is and it isn’t.
Indeed, you’ll find the usual dishes: creamy hummus in plain and spicy versions; tomato-feta salad with onions and olives dressed in herby vinaigrette; and ground-beef (kofte) shish kebabs accented justly with onions and coriander seeds.
More unique is elbow macaroni salad with pinkish bits of soy bacon. Creamy and somewhat sweet, it strikes a close parallel to versions you’d find on Hawaiian plate lunches.
My favorite side dish is the green lentil salad with walnuts, which offers a pleasant crunch and whispers of bay leaves, garlic and mustard. Consistently, it has tasted exotically Turkish and rustically French at the same time.
As for the starring dish, the döners are doozies in terms of size. Priced at an easy $7.99, they’re packed from end to end with warmly spiced chicken from a vertical rotisserie stacked with sweaty thigh meat. Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and fresh mint are also tucked inside.
The flatbread casings used for the kebabs resembled those I’ve had in Wiesbaden, Germany some years ago, the city where I first experienced these hefty wraps. The warm, airy bread is thin, without tearing apart as you munch along. Here, the yogurt-garlic sauce is a little less feisty in comparison, but still with enough strength to break up a party if you leave it hanging on your breath.
If opting for the chicken kebab, you end up with char-grilled breast meat instead of the juicier döner-style thigh meat. It costs about 60 cents extra, but it’s still a delicious deal, especially with the support of the garlic sauce and the house-made spicy red sauce, which mingle exceptionally well together.
Since becoming a regular visitor to the Mission Valley location, a friend and I recently tried the lamb-beef meal plate accompanied by saffron rice and the tomato-feta salad.
We watched the curly ribbons of compressed meat tumbled onto a tray as a cook shaved the coned meat with what looked and sounded like electric shears. The result was tasty gyros sporting precision buzz cuts.
I’ve yet to try the eatery’s Iskender kebab, which features wider strips from the beef-lamb cone, plus tomato sauce, yogurt and a grilled pepper served atop buttered pita bread. The creation dates back a couple hundred years to the Turkish city of Bursa.
Co-founded in 2007 in the East Village by Dutch transplant Tony Farmand, the growing eatery offers consumers at all locations a taste of ancient cultures from various regions throughout the Middle East, fusing them together with modern adaptations done remarkably well.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.