Years ago, there was a small Turkish lunch counter on MacDougal whose major feature was a tapering cylinder of compressed lamb, the top as wide as a linebacker’s shoulders, heavily herbed and dripping as it rotated in front of a gas flame. For each order, an employee cut thick slices of meat, then slid the slices into an oniony, yogurt-slathered sandwich. It was divine; after the place closed, I’ve been looking for that sandwich’s equal ever since.
Turns out, I found it on the Lower East Side at a restaurant from Ramazan Turgut, who used to own Bereket on Houston and Orchard streets for nearly 20 years until a condo project forced him to close in 2014. The new place, Ankara, which opened in March at 183 Houston, near Allen Street, is the third location for a small group of Turkish restaurants based in Brooklyn. It’s right next door to Turgut’s old spot, with döner, red lentil soup, and other menu items from Bereket. But I went to a dozen other places before I landed here for what turns out to be a superlative sandwich.
First, some background: Shawarma, gyro, and döner are all names for basically a similar sandwich: a vertical twirling spit of lamb, chicken, or pork used to make sandwiches and platters. The spit itself was supposedly invented by Iskender Efendi in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Turkish immigrant to Germany Kadir Nurman supposedly sold his first döner kebab sandwich (the name is Turkish) in Berlin.
I started with places that identified themselves as German döner kebab spots, a couple of which have opened in the past few years, including Kotti Berliner Döner Kebab in DeKalb Market and elsewhere in Brooklyn and Manhattan, founded in New York based on German models. More recently, a competing establishment appeared at 240 E. 14th Street near Union Square, once again founded by an expat German based on old-country models.
I raced over to Döner Haus as soon as it opened late last month. It looked really cool, with a black facade, lots of yellow neon signage, and a window that dispensed platters and sandwiches, with no indoor seating.
I was also disappointed to find only chicken and beef. I asked the clerk at the counter why no lamb, and she said, “Americans don’t like lamb.” Nevertheless, I ordered one sandwich of each and took them to Stuyvesant Park to eat. They were compiled on good bread, something like a stiff focaccia, with a generous amount of fillings and zippy sauces, but the meat itself was a bummer. The beef was like cardboard, the chicken marginally better but flavorless and clumpy.
Over a couple of weeks, I went to a half-dozen more places to try to find the lamb döner of my dreams. At Berlin Döner (104 MacDougal, near Bleecker) — which through a succession of Turkish fast-food places replaced my original lamb döner go-to — I experienced what was becoming a frequent disappointment: döner kebab made with an amalgam of both beef and lamb, offered on three kinds of bread. I knew the taste of the lamb-beef hybrid to be disappointing, so I went for the adjacent chicken döner, since the twirling cylinder was shingled with big pieces of dripping poultry, and the sandwich was $9.75, which is a bargain given its size. Not bad, but it wasn’t lamb.
Eventually, I started going to places that identified themselves as Turkish rather than German. I was excited to see a döner kebab spinning slowly in the window of Istanbul Kebab House at 712 Ninth Avenue, near 49th Street, in Hell’s Kitchen. It was a cute place with comfortable seating despite its small size, and the staff was welcoming. I asked about the lamb döner and they enthusiastically described it as pure lamb. I sat down to eat, but when I tucked into the pita sandwich ($12), the meat was too lean — and as I had learned, it’s the grease that best transmits the barnyard funk of the meat.
I finally found lamb döner nirvana at Bereket’s successor, Ankara #3. My heart was thrilled to see not one or two, but four cylinders of meat rotating in the window, as a guy shaved them like a barber with a mean-looking knife.
As is conventional, the lamb döner is offered on three kinds of bread — pocket pita, Turkish bread, and a wrap ($13 each), the latter something like a flour tortilla. This time the Turkish bread was an individual round roll, unseeded but still focaccia-like in its crustiness. And the meat was absolutely wonderful, as greasy as you’d like and heavily pungent of hay and loam. The vegetables on top were fresh, though I should have asked for more raw onions. While several versions I’d had earlier had been served with tahini, this one had minted yogurt on the side, and a great oily hot sauce, too.
It’s nice to think I can visit the place anytime I want for a lamb döner, and the menu also offers a veal gyro called yaprak in the Uzbeki style, which is also worth trying for its highly caramelized meat flavors.