June 20 2014 04:41 PM

Dumplings, kabobs and more at Barrio Logan restaurant

Handmade manti
Lezzet Cafe’s handmade manti

Lezzet Café sits below the point where Chollas Creek empties into San Diego Bay and Interstate 15 ends in the least fancied stretch of Barrio Logan (3586 Main St.). It's the endpoint of a journey, if not exactly a destination. It takes an act of will to get there. 

Turkish cuisine—Lezzet's specialty—is itself the result of a journey that began as the nomadic Turks left the central Asian steppes, migrating west through Southern Central Asia into Anatolia and, ultimately, to the Bosphorus straits. The rich fusion of the flavors the Turks gathered along the way melded with Byzantine and Greek influences into a rich and highly refined Ottoman cuisine. 

A dish that embodies this migration—and one of the best at Lezzet—is manti, steamed dumplings filled with beef and onion (fried, they're called börek). Originating with the Uyghur Turks in what is now Western China, manti traveled west with the Turkish people. In contemporary Turkey, they come in a wide variety of shapes and with different meat fillings. At Lezzet, they're topped with yoghurt, garlic, red chili powder and a tomato-sauce dab. Manti are at once familiar and exotic.

Another standout at Lezzet is the gözleme, a savory Turkish pastry filled with spinach, onion, cilantro, feta and mozzarella cheeses cooked on a griddle and served with yoghurt. The gözleme I tried in Turkey seemed to be a flatbread dish. Lezzet's is more of a pancake. Regardless, it was tasty, if ever so slightly under-seasoned.

Any vegetable is a candidate for a rice-based stuffing in Turkey. And not just vegetables. I've never tasted a mussel dish better than the steamed ones stuffed with rice and dried fruit offered by a street vender by the Bosphorus. Dolma (stuffed vegetables) are not, however, what Lezzet does best. Its grape-leaf dolmata—stuffed with rice, beef and onions—was even more egregiously under-seasoned than the gözleme. Polish go??bki have nothing to fear from the limp cabbage dolmata stuffed with the same filling (albeit in a beautiful emerald-green wrapper).

Lezzet's chicken kebab, served over rice pilaf with a green salad, was better. The seasoning was spot-on and the grilled chicken was mouth-wateringly tender on the inside and perfectly caramelized on the outside. The simple, buttery rice pilaf with julienned carrots was a real prize. 

But it's entirely possible the highlight at Lezzet is the bread—samsa—that arrived first at our table, and for no additional charge. This puffy bread, simultaneously substantial and airy, was wonderfully savory in its own right, but paired with Lezzet's spicy salsa, avocado dip and yoghurt sauce, it was an appetizer that would have satisfied as a complete meal.

Lezzet's location is not exactly inviting. Sitting between Adult Emporium and those tracks that the café is metaphorically on the wrong side of it, does take an act of will to go there. It's an act well worth taking to experience one of the more exotic and unusual meals available in San Diego.


Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER

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