If you work in an office, chances are you look forward to your lunch hour with almost absurd glee. At least that's how I feel as I'm counting down the minutes to my precious hour of freedom, when I can stretch my legs and, most important, get something good to eat. My break in the day gives me the opportunity to explore the neighborhood, East Village, to check out new eating options and see what kind of fancy condo building has gone up seemingly overnight. While it remains to be seen if East Village will be swallowed up by the flash and hustle of the Gaslamp, I'm hoping the area will retain the fringe charm and character that I've grown to love.
A lot of changes are happening around Ninth Avenue, in particular. I've been eagerly tracking construction of a new bowling alley and bar (R.I.P. Sunset Bowl), and I hear that a giant Western-themed restaurant is set to open around the corner. The place I'm most excited about, though, is The Kebab Shop, which serves fast food of the freshest kind and has become a delicious addition to my lunch rotation.
Kebab shops in Europe are as ubiquitous as taco shops are here, with thousands upon thousands of these affordable joints across the continent. Their popularity in Europe even surpasses that of McDonald's in many countries. San Diego has only a handful of similar places, so when local guy Aaron, The Kebab Shop's owner, decided to chuck his IT job and get back to his restaurant roots by opening a place of his own, the kebab spots that he and his wife had patronized during their travels through Europe and Turkey came to mind. They found space to rent in a spot formerly occupied by The Armory, the hip-hop store on the corner of Ninth and Market, and quickly renovated it, creating a bright, sunny space that's attracting people from the downtown area and local ex-pats from Mediterranean countries who come seeking the familiar flavors of home.
I made my first trip to The Kebab Shop with two Turkish friends, amazing cooks in their own right who definitely know their food. They were ecstatic to see Iskender Kebab on the menu, a traditional Turkish dish that's rarely found stateside. I followed their lead and ordered my own. Two bites were all it took to get hooked and bemoan the fact that I hadn't been eating this regularly for years. Iskender Kebab starts with a bed of pita slices over which is layered a heap of sliver-thin pieces of lamb. Fresh tomato sauce and a drizzle of brown butter blanket the meat before the whole delectable combo is sprinkled with fresh herbs, dollops of creamy Middle Eastern-style yogurt and served with a char-roasted green Anaheim chili. While most items on the menu are served on paper plates, the the hefty Iskender Kebab requires a heavy stoneware plate to hold such a mountain of food and sauce. Every bite is a mix of salty, creamy, tangy and spicy. Seriously, where has this dish been all my life?
Since then, I've come back on a weekly basis to try everything on the menu. The Doner Kebab of spiced ground lamb is shaved off a cone of meat on a rotating vertical rotisserie and is similar in taste and appearance to a gyro. The slices of meat are piled into a wrap with a bundle of fresh veggies and moistened with pungent, garlicky yogurt sauce. At first I was surprised that Aaron has chosen to use large tortillas instead of tender Lavash bread, but he explained that tortilla-like wraps are customarily served in kebab shops in Europe, where they're known as flatbread. He scooters over to Panchita's Bakery every morning to pick up fresh telera rolls for the Chicken Shawarma, in which thin strips of chicken are stacked on a tall skewer and turned on a spit. As the tower roasts, the juices drip down, basting along the way and intensifying the rich meatiness. I usually find chicken sandwiches boring; this one is anything but.
Also on the menu: Crunchy spheres of falafel that are good in either a wrap or a sandwich. Other kebabs, like the grilled Moroccan-spiced shrimp and the Kofte Kebab, a charbroiled skewer of a seasoned ground beef, are cooked to order and come with one hot and one cold side dish. Sides include saffron basmati rice, herb-laden tabouli, a caprese salad, hummus and grilled eggplant in a vinaigrette.
The Kebab Shop, 630 Ninth Ave., Downtown, is open daily, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. 619-525-0055.