The Döner Party

Posted by on July 3rd, 2011

The year was 2008 and like everyone who graduates college with a Liberal Arts degree, I was asking, “Now what?” Jobs weren’t dropping from the sky, my friends were moving on in life and getting married. I knew we needed a last hurrah of boyhood. Something big, something crazy and something that would go down in our histories as the adventure of a lifetime: We were going to backpack Europe.

In June 2008, we said goodbye to our parents at SFO’s international terminal and embarked on our journey. With smiling faces, a laugh in our voices and the kind of bravado only naivety can inspire, we boarded a 747 bound for London. One month later, two days before my friend’s wedding, we returned – tired, tattered, with holes in our shoes, beards on our faces, bags under our eyes, looking quite a bit skinnier and older than we had before.

The trip had gotten as close to disaster as you could get without actually being a disaster. We slept on the streets, we ran out of money, we missed trains, we walked more than 100 miles – one of us with a broken ankle – and we even managed to spend a wild night in Paris that included a drunken Bosnian War veteran with a bullet-scarred torso. In other words, it was amazing.

It was a month filled with memories and when it comes to food, one memory remains supreme: the Döner Kebab. Returned backpackers discuss Döner almost as much as their desire to write a book about how life-changing and unique their sojourn was.

It’s cheap, filling and – because it is a favorite of the inebriated – served around the clock. It’s the Turkish equivalent of the midnight burrito and holds a certain mystique in the world of budget traveling. The cult of kebab is only deepened by their scarcity stateside.

In a world flattened by globalization, Döner Kebab is one of the few experiences that are truly geocentric. Sure, you can get gyros and schwarma here but it’s not the same. The seasoning and toppings don’t match up to the real thing, and that’s hard to explain to someone who has never tasted one. On the surface it’s just meat, bread and some wilted veggies, but to anyone who’s had a good kebab it’s much more – and ever since returning I’ve been attempting to get my hands on one.

The King of Street Food

Like most things ending in “kebab,” Döner starts out as meat on a stick. Slices of lean meat, often lamb, are piled onto the spit until it turns into one solid, meaty cylinder. Fat is either interspersed between slices or set on top and melts in during cooking, keeping the meat moist and delicious.

Spices, tomatoes and onions can also be added to the top of the spit to let extra flavor drip down. The entire creation rotates in front of a hot surface for hours of slow cooking and marinating, before being shaved off in thin strips by a device that bears a disturbing resemblance to an electric sheep shearer. Those slices are then added to some form of bread, pita or lavash (think square tortilla).

Much like its Latin cousin, the taco, what goes into the kebab is a free for all. I’ve eaten them with fillings from goat cheese to French fries and heard of even more bizarre combinations, including fried eggs and veal. My personal favorite is served with a simple salad, some vegetables, white sauce and hot sauce.

The combo is sweet, salty, spicy and can keep you going all day. Like most things in life, something this good has to be bad. The numbers vary, but most estimates put kebabs right around the 1,500-calorie mark. The fatty snack tends to get blamed for obesity problems, especially in the U.K. where they attract scorn much like soda in the U.S., but to the starving backpacker they’re a godsend.

In Spain, they average €3 or about $5. Halfway through the trip, they became the main (only) meal for our ragtag band of penny-pinching travelers. When kebabs started to feel expensive, we knew we were in trouble.

Organizing a Search

Döner originated in Turkey and spread across the world from there. The one place it hasn’t seemed to spread is the United States, with the exception of a few Midwestern cities housing large immigrant populations. A search online often finds much more whining about not being able to get kebab then helpful advice about where to find authentic Döner.

Some offer vague advice like, “I think there was this one place in San Francisco, I don’t remember the name, but I think it was down this really narrow alley,” or “There used to be this guy who sold them out of a truck before he got deported.”

Yes, the tips are colorful, but they’re not very helpful. A further search provides about three places in Southern California, and another four or five in the north. Each of these places claims to serve the real deal, but inevitably some kebab “expert” cries impostor.

Because it comes in so many varieties, it’s hard to pin down exactly what “authentic” is. For me it’s the Döner in Spain, specifically a shop in Grenada, down the street from the cathedral, in the plaza with the Fuente de las Batallas. I sat under an umbrella, outside the open-front shop eating kebab almost every day I was in the city. The meat was good, the bread fresh and the sauces amazing.

Spitz

That’s how I remember it, and no matter how many shaved-meats stuffed in breads I try from the Moroccan, Greek or Indian places in California, I’ve never been able to recapture that experience. That’s why I was excited the first time I heard about Spitz in Los Angeles.

The story behind the restaurant got a lot of media attention when it opened: a few guys who went to Europe, loved Kebab and wanted them back home. My friends and I tossed around the same ideas (as I’m sure hundreds of others have) but these guys actually took the next step and opened a restaurant.

On our last trip to LA, I asked my wife how she would feel about sacrificing lunch at the Vietnamese place we went to on our honeymoon so I could try Spitz. Because she loves me and because I had a crazy look in my eye like a starved dog in a butcher shop, she said yes.

Spitz is in Little Tokyo and has been gaining acclaim – as the sign proclaiming, “Best sandwich in Los Angeles,” points out. I entered with some trepidation; even if this was the real thing, could I recognize it? After all, it had been more than two years since I last had one; were my expectations too high? A line of rotating meats glowing in the red light of heating coils eased my fears: At least they’re cooking it right.

The atmosphere is kind of a cross between a fast-food joint and hip bar. I surveyed the menu; everything seemed to be in order. Several styles and flavors of Döner, served on your choice of crusty bread or lavash. Remembering that I liked the hot sauce in Spain, I opted for the spicy version and we took our seats.

I only had a few minutes to observe the modern furniture and kebab-shaped chandeliers made from rebar before our meals arrived. They looked right, and the presentation was certainly better-looking than the paper sacks in Spain.

It came with sides that made up for varying from tradition by being downright amazing. Crispy pita strips with hummus dip for me and parsley-seasoned sweet potato fries with aioli for my wife. Good as they were, sides weren’t the reason I was here. It was time: For the first time in almost three years, I took a bite of Döner.

Pita strips served as sides at Spitz.

“I think this is it,” I said, tying not to raise my voice over the mellow music. The meat was perfect, it was just like I remembered; salty and bursting with flavor. The bread was warm, the salad crunchy and plenty of white sauce was drizzled inside. I took another bite and the ingredients melted together in my mouth, this was good.

But what was that taste? Something was off. Again, I set into my wrap trying to discern what was bothering me. It was the hot sauce; it tasted too Mexican, something akin to Tapatio. Something else didn’t seem quite right, they were serving diced bell peppers in the salad. I’d never had it like that before. It seemed too fresh – yes, there is such a thing – and too Californian.

It wasn’t bad, in fact it was really good, just not the same thing I had in Spain, but I wasn’t disappointed. After all, I now have plenty of reason to go back to Spitz and try the other combinations; the thrill of the chase isn’t over.

Looking Back

There are few recipes as powerful as place and time. The scent of something exotic mixed with the hypnotic distance of memory. Colors brighten while details fade like a post-Impressionist painting and what was once a complex interweaving of emotions, experiences and thoughts is distilled down to packets the mind can file. This is one of life’s essential spices, and there are few foods lucky enough to be seasoned with it. Perhaps that is why the cult of Kebab was formed.

The secret to great Döner isn’t the meat, fat or sauces. It’s the friendship, the camaraderie that’s formed when you have to scrounge up $5 to eat in a place where you don’t speak the language and you’re so tired you can’t think straight. It’s the comfort of eating something warm after a restless night on a train, the thrill of experiencing a distant land with new foods and the awe of staring in silence at sights on a cinematic scale.

The way you experience a time or place has a way of coloring everything, including the food. It’s the reason nobody makes it like mom, and the reason I’ve yet to get authentic kebab.

Later in the day, I sent a picture of the menu to the five friends who trekked Europe with me, hoping to inspire some nostalgia. One friend, who now lives in Mississippi, responded that he had found a place near his home that served authentic (“bomb,” in his words) kebab.

It almost seemed like blasphemy. You’re not supposed to find good kebab here; that’s what makes this glorified fast food the topic of endless debates over authenticity and why it inspires devoted fans. To kebab followers, finding it is almost as much about recapturing the memories of travel as it is about the food. Even if the recipes at Spitz were clones of my favorite shop in Grenada, it wouldn’t be the same, and that’s the point.

So if you’re ever in Spain, the good kebab is in the Plaza de Fuente de las Batallas – and if you feel like staying closer to home try Spitz, just don’t blame me when it’s not like you remembered.

This article was originally published on Feb. 3, 2011 in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.