Saying that there was some trepidation concerning the move is putting it lightly. As their lease ran out and the Aggad family was informed that the building that had housed their eclectic and frankly excellent grocery and eatery was to be demolished to make room for another gas station (the third on the intersection of Wyoming and Constitution, no less), the outlook was grim among Cafe Istanbul’s regulars. In the end, the family was able to secure a location just across the street from the old shop. But how could this spot, tucked into a strip mall, compare to the lived-in charm of the original, with its coat of lemon-peel-yellow paint and splash on the windows advertising kebabs, falafel, tabbouleh, hummus, dolmas and halva? In the end they made the move. And while it’s true that the edifice lost some charm, both Cafe Istanbul’s food and its sense of community have continued to prosper.
Cafe Istanbul greets its patrons with signage in English, Arabic, Pashto and Dari—a reminder to fill out the 2020 Census. That sign, though created by the census bureau, gives some sense of the variety inside. I showed up during a lull between the lunch and dinner rushes so that I could browse the aisles of the grocery during the five minutes it took the staff to prepare my order. A majority of the goods on display are of Middle Eastern provenance, but there’s also a wealth of Eastern European items that I have yet to see elsewhere in town: unsalted black sunflower seeds with a babushka on the packaging; purple pickled turnips; borscht concentrate; and mounds of refrigerated smoked herring and mackerel. Members of Albuquerque’s umma come here for halal gummies straight from Palestine (generic gelatin is often made of pork bones), prayer rugs and other things not so commonly available in New Mexico. Other items demonstrate that this is truly a “Mediterranean” shop: a rich variety of pickles and olive oils from the Levant and beyond, kefirs, non-alcoholic barley beverages and five different brands of sumac. Back up at the deli counter—while collecting my weighty order of schawarma, three types of fatayer, falafel and hummus—I waited for Iman Aggad, the imminently knowledgable and helpful teenaged clerk, to get off the phone. “You want a Quran stand? Let me go check…” I became entranced by the selection of Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese olives. I went with the Lebanese variety, settled up and headed to the parking lot with my haul of Middle-Eastern fare and a crate of Polish “Perlage” brand seltzer water.
I started off with straight hummus and pita. When offered the extra splash of olive oil and sprinkling of sumac on top I’d eagerly accepted—and I was not disappointed with my decision. The dip of blended chickpeas, elevated by the perfect quantity of oil, was rich and smooth in a way that the grocery store brands never achieve. While this hummus won’t last nearly as long in your fridge, it’s not likely you’ll need it to. And I assure you that you will never go back to the trash that is Sabra again.
The pita is made by a baker at Yasmin’s, down by UNM, another part of the community of which Café Istanbul is an integral part. It was fresh, with a sweetness I found interesting and somewhat reminiscent of King’s Hawaiian buns. I enjoyed the brightness the sugar brought, but I wondered if this flatbread would qualify as “bread” in the Republic of Ireland—where Subway submarine sandwiches lost their tax-free status after their encasements were reclassified as cake. Moving on to the falafel: It was solid and perfectly spiced, but I would have loved to have gotten there as these were coming out of the fryer. Café Istanbul cooks them in large batches, much like donuts. And like donuts, they depreciate somewhat as they cool—even though they retain an undeniable baseline deliciousness. The chicken certainly delivered: perfectly spiced with a cumin-dominant profile and well complimented by the tahini that came on the side. My one regret was not asking for a side of shatta, a rather salty chile paste popular across much of the Middle-East that I reckon most local Burqueños would appreciate for the added kick it provides.
The star of the feast, and what I cannot recommend enough, are the savory pies known in Arabic as fatayer. For good measure I purchased all three varieties: spinach, beef and Bulgarian feta. These masterpieces are baked specially by an Iraqi woman who comes in just to perform this service. The fatayer alone are worth the trip, but my advice is to go early or call ahead as they often sell out. The spinach is my go-to. It has a nice bitter bite and a slight purple tinge from what I believe to be sumac and red onion. They are all killer and while one, at $2.99, will fill you up, two with a side of hummus (and shatta!) make for a serious mid-day feast.
I rounded the meal off with a small diamond-shaped morsel of baklava. Naturally, these also come in three varieties. I went for the less flaky option as I had never sampled it before. The crumbled pistachios on top were a perfect match for the intense honeyed sweetness inside brimming with so much rose water it hit like some sort of elevated Fruit Gushers candy. After washing this all down with the Polish mineral water, which had a “gentle fizz” as advertised, I headed home to nap off the rapidly approaching food coma.
On the way out of the lot, I noticed a few college-aged, somewhat granola youth lounging in the back of a minivan. From a safe distance, masked up, I asked what they’d chosen. They shifted somewhat to display their spread—a family-size helping of hummus and a pack of fresh local (sweet) pita with a whole quart of olive oil. They, too, had chosen wisely.
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