There is only one polite answer to the question, “Are you hungry?” That, of course is “Yes”, no matter how full, distended or bloated one may actually feel after having crammed two falafel, several gyro, a half tray of baklava and five generous bowls of hummus into her craw over the last 24 hours in search of real Mediterranean food in the North Bay.
I blame the baklava for what happens next. “No. Not really. I’m not that hungry,” it blurts. This is clearly the wrong answer and may be why the small woman behind the deli counter at Real Doner is looking at me oddly while I fondle the menus. Crickets chirp for a moment. Time for a tactical change.
“By that I meant, what’s good?” Right answer. Before I can set down my car keys, a heaping plate of “specialties” is pushed in front of me by Doner-owner Ozkan Apaydin. Chef “Joe” Serder Besir whirls into action behind the counter, chattering a mile a minute over a steaming cauldron while several eyes watch my every nibble of the impromptu meze “You taste. What you like, I’ll give you a good price,” says Ozkan with the charm of a practiced salesman.
This is a man who (along with his wife and brother-in-law, the chef) truly, desperately, honestly wants to feed you. At a good price. Which means heck with the fuss of, well…stuff like ambiance. The former corner grocery just south of downtown Petaluma looks like a former corner grocery store. There are a handful of tables, a decorative hookah, outdoor patio in the parking lot, TV blaring Middle Eastern news and the whirling sideshow of Joe and Ozkan doing their thing. You’re here to eat and learn.
Yes, learn. Ozkan is the real deal, an immigrant and former cab driver
who brought his chef brother-in-law from the kitchens of New York to
Petaluma to cook serious Mediterranean food. You may remember him from
his brief moment as owner of Real Gyro in Santa Rosa (something about
the rent) before opening Real Doner. And no, it’s not donut misspelled.
Doner is the Turkish word for gyro (which by the way is pronounced
yer-roh. Not jy-ro.) With his wife and brother-in-law at his side,
Ozkan’s out to spread the gospel of Turkish cuisine, staring one gyro,
I mean doner, at a time.
That much of the menu requires detailed explanation is merely another
opportunity for education and discussion. All the better to get you to
try some Lahmacun, Ezme or Pilaki. And by the way, have you tried the
Go with it and you will be rewarded, because straying from your comfort
zone — hummus, shish kebab, and baba ganouj, though exceptional,
aren’t where Joe’s talents really shine. Instead, veer into uncharted
waters: Cigarette Borek ($5.95), deep fried dough stuffed with feta and
parsley; Lahmacun, a Turkish pizza with ground beef ($3.95); lamb and
beef doner ($6.50); daily “specialties” like Ezme, a spicy salad of red
peppers (Joe won’t tell me what else) or red beans in olive oil and
Just don’t ask what’s in any of it. Because Joe won’t tell you. “That’s
my secret. I’ve worked on that for 30 years,” he barks when I ask about
the hayadari — which as best I can tell is a combination of roasted
eggplant and yogurt (or more likely sour cream).
“How am I supposed to explain it?” I ask. “You tell them to come in and get it,” he deadpans.
The next minute, Joe is ladeling up some of his secret schwarma sauce
and mugging for the camera. “Taste it. Taste it! You love it, right?” I
don’t make the mistake of asking for the recipe twice.
Save room for his Bulbul Yuvasi, a bird’s nest of shredded phil stuffed
with pistachios or Kazandibi, oven-browned milk pudding. Both are a
nice addition to a strong cup of turkish coffee. At these prices, you
can afford a little indulgence.
Feeling like an overstuffed dolmas bustin’ out of my grape leaf, I
waddle out into the night with halvah-knows what in boxes and bags
they’ve stuffed with food for “my friends”. Clearly my next meal is not
top of mind. No matter. “Don’t be a stranger. You come back with your
friends. You come back tomorrow. Bring your friends,” say Joe and Ozkan
again and again.
They want to feed me. And you. At a good price.
Real Doner, 307 F. St. Petaluma, 707.765.9555.