I can't recall how many times I've walked by the bluntly named Turkish Cuisine in Andersonville and thought to myself, "I have got to try that place." Peering in from the outside, it has always struck me as exactly the kind of oddball restaurant that I could fall in love withthe kind of joint where bizarre signage and outdated décor don't matter because the food is just that good. Lured by promises of authentic food at cheap prices, a BYOB policy and live belly dancers on the weekends, I imagined Turkish Cuisine could become one of my go-to restaurants for budget-friendly group dinners that would guarantee a good timeyou know, the kind of place you take out-of-town guests who want a taste of "the real Chicago."
Well, I finally made it to Turkish Cuisine, and I can report that it exceeded some of my (admittedly high) expectations and failed miserably in other areas. I made a reservation for 8 p.m., so I could settle in and place my order before the belly-dancing show that was supposed to begin at 8:30 p.m. When I arrived, the place was emptystartlingly so, as in there were maybe eight other human beings in the entire restaurant, which is much larger than the average Chicago eatery. And, let me tell you, outdated décor goes from charming to creepy really fast when a restaurant is empty on a Friday night.
The ambiance didn't improve much when our waitress arrived at the table. She was polite enough, but seemed almost alarmed by our presence. No matter what she said to us, I felt like she was asking, "What are you people doing here?" I asked the waitress when the belly dancer would begin and was told that she was sick, which I am guessing is code for, "I don't work my butt off all night for an audience of nine." Fair enough. My friend and I had stocked up on our favorite wines and were looking forward to an evening of good food and great conversation, so we remained determined to have fun.
We threw in an order for a few appetizers and poured some wine. Things immediately started to look up when food began arriving at our table. First came a basket of warm Turkish bread, which tasted like a delightful hybrid of naan and French bread. After I dipped the first chunk into olive oil, I surrendered all feeble resolutions to watch my carbs that night.
Next came a plate of sizzling hot fried phyllo dough filled with feta cheese. Sigara Boregi is the Turkish answer to mozzarella sticks and it is fantastic, especially when slathered in the yogurt dipping sauce that accompanies it. I also loved the Mucver, pan-fried zucchini pancakes. They were doughy and fried lightly enough so as not to obliterate any taste of fresh vegetables. I also tried the Imam Bayildi, thin layers of cold cooked eggplant wrapped around a mixture of onion, red and green peppers, walnuts are garlic. The eggplant was seasoned nicely and the walnuts added an interesting toasty flavor, but the dish didn't wow me as much as the other appetizers.
The menu is quite large, and thankfully includes photos of each item, which I suspect was the suggestion of an Eastern European waitress tired of answering questions from clueless Americans. Even with the photos (and some knowledge of food other than cheeseburgers and pizza), selecting an entrée was hard just because the sheer number you can choose from. You'll find everything from hearty European classics like beef stroganoff to kebabs of beef, lamb and chicken to 10 different kinds of pide, which is a Turkish spin on pizza. Regrettably, I didn't try the pide, but from the photos, it looks a bit doughier than pizza, more like a calzone, and is available with all kinds of delicious-sounding filling combos, like beef, onions and tomatoes or Mediterranean sausage and mozzarella.
I was in the mood for something simple, so I ordered the filet mignon kabob. The meat was definitely prepared in a way that infused it with all kinds of smoky flavor. But, I have to question whether the cut served to me was, in fact, filet mignon, because it was quite tough and chewy. I enjoyed it nonetheless and recommend dipping the meat in any leftover yogurt sauce. Actually, I recommend dipping just about anything you order here in yogurt sauce. I also tried to chicken kebab, which was just as flavorful as the beef, but more tender. I think it's the kind of dish that would satisfy die-hard Turkish food fans and first-timers alike.
None of the three dessert offerings sounded scrumptious enough to splurge on after an already-filling meal. But, the waitress brought us some baklava on the house, perhaps as consolation for the belly dancing that never came to pass. And I must say, I'm glad I got to try it. It was light and flaky and not so sweet it hurts your teeth, as I find most baklavas to be.
In spite of the bizarre atmosphere, I had a very pleasant evening at Turkish Cuisine. The food was way above average and almost ridiculously affordable for the quantity and quality. I hope to one night enjoy a more lively meal at Turkish Cuisine, complete with belly dancers (and hopefully, a few other paying customers). I suspect I visited on an off night. From everything I've heard and read, crowds typically crowds flock to this hidden gem. But, even if they don't, I, for one, will be going back again and again.
Turkish Cuisine is located 5605 N. Clark St.; call 773-878-8930 or visit www.turkishcuisine.net/index.asp.
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