Real Doner: The hummus among us

baklava.jpgThere 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.
doner.jpgYes, 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
Hayadari?

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
lemon.

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.

donner2.jpgThe 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.

Author: biteclub

Food Dining and Restaurants in Sonoma County and beyond, BiteClubEats.com is Wine Country dining with Drive-Thru Sensibility.

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21 Comments

  1. Oh, this is a very interesting blog page and ive enjoyed reading many of the articles and posts contained on the website, keep up the good work and hope to read some more interesting content in the future.

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  2. The food is not as good as before. The original chef opened his own place in Petaluma Plaza, a real restaurant. Doner food is good but Afendi’s is great.
    Just don’t watch their how they bus tables, prep food, and how they just handle bread WITHOUT washing his hands!!!!!!!!!!!!! Totally unsanitary, just count the number of times this guy touched dirty things then the food without washing. GROSS

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  3. We did a back to back taste test of shawerma at Aram’s Cafe and Real Doner, both in Petaluma. There is no competition, Aram’s is far superior.
    First, Aram’s serves its shawerma on pita, not lavash. Second, Aram’s chicken has actual flavor/spicing, not just from the sauce. Third, Aram’s has ambiance (real tables & chairs, no florescent lighting, and not a converted convenience store).
    In summary, Aram’s left me wanting more. Real Doner left me wanting to not return.

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  4. They have raised the prices on all the wraps. What was 6.50 is now $8, and what was $7.50 is now $9.
    With tax, that’s $9 for a Falaffel sandwich, or $10 for a doner wrap. That is just way too expensive for a cabbage filled wrap in my opinion.
    Huge Burritos at any of our local taquerias are 5 to 6 bucks, that are full of Carne asada and all the goodies.
    I don’t see the justification for such a price increase, especially at a deli-like establishment. Doesn’t look like we will be making the trip to Real Doner anymore.

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  5. I’ve ate here several times, (at least once a week) My fav: chicken gyro. The lamb and beef one is amazing as well. Great place to eat, great food.

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  6. Chef Joe is worldclass in his cooking and a nice guy to boot! The female host is warm and friendly too. But the male owner is dragging down the business. He doesn’t understand customer service and doesn’t try to be helpful. I hope he learns because we need this place. Otherwise, it will fail.

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  7. Go to SYRAh and ask for Gabe to make you some home made HUMMUS … he is arabic and will blow you out of the water with his HUMMUS…. and falafel!!!!

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  8. Yeah the cook and wife are very nice, while the owner/cash register dude (the guy in the picture with the black shirt) is a little gruff. He needs to brush up on his customer service and could be a tad more polite/friendly, but I’m here for the food, which is delicous. The doners are great and a good size. A whole one fills me up good. I like that they don’t use some heavy fattening mayo based sauce for the doners, and use a nice light yogurt based sauce. It’s real food, and healthier than other options IMO.
    I’m going back this week to try something new from them.
    I’m very happy this is in the Northbay.

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  9. This food is the real deal. From gyros to desserts, all delicious. Yummy. What bother my family and I was the service from particular person, I guess he is the owner. Don’t have respect to customers. All the time he is talking on his phone very loudly. I decide to ignore him because other people such as the Chef, Joe and I believe the owner’s wife “Be” (He nick for name.)was really nice to us. They always give us appetizer to make us feel at home. I own a restaurant myself and the secret to this place is the food. Behind all this is the a fellow from New York where I’m originally from NJ. I like the way Joe, the secret behind all the delicious food, is the preparer and cook of all the meals, was talking to my kids and my wife and me explaining with excitiment about the food he makes. I couldn’t believe that he prepares all the food.”Be” is a sweatheart with her warmth smile and shaking her head is the opposite of her husband.

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  10. I figure I could add a little info about the whole doner/gyro thing. As noted in the article, “doner” (the 1st syllable is pronounced like the “oo” in “good” and NOT like “o” in “go”; in Turkish there is an umlaut over the o) and “gyro” are the same basic thing. Gyro is Greek and doner is Turkish and both basically mean “going around,” with “doner” derived from the verb “donmek,” meaning “to turn around.” Both use meat sliced from the turning vertical spit. It is unclear where or when this type of spit started, but according to one legend it was invented in the mid 19th century in the Turkish city of Bursa by a chef called Iskender Usta, the man also credited with created the Iskender Kebap (also called the Bursa Kebap), a specific dish using doner meat. His family restaurant, called Iskenderoglu, still exists in Bursa and has spread as a small chain.
    One reason there is so much commonality in cuisine in Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, etc., is that all of these places were part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which began conquering the regions in the 14th century and fell only with the end of WWI. With the sultans bringing all the elements of the empire to the capital and people from all over the empire going there and mixing together, food ideas mixed and then spread to every region. In many instances, these were new combinations that arose either from the palace chefs creating new dishes (like baklava and Turkish Delight) that the elites from Croatia to Iraq wanted to emulate, or simply from different traditions being blended into one new dish. That’s why they all have things like dolma (a Turkish word, from the verb dolmk, meaning “stuffed thing”) or the salad commonly but incorrectly called “Greek Salad,” (the name differs from country to country; in Turkey it is called Coban salatasi, Shepherd’s Salad).

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  11. I have eaten here several times and the food is wonderful. This is another great restaurant for us in Petaluma.

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  12. Thank you for telling us about this place! Just got back and we’re stuffed and happy! The hummus had great texture as well as a light and fresh taste. Tabouli was like I have heard it should be, heavy on the green and not too much bulgar. If I lived in Petaluma they’d see me almost every day!

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  13. Great !!! We went after hearing you talk about this spot on KZST. Love the food, people and music. Will go again, good food at good prices.

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  14. Excellent food, great people, good prices. My family eats here almost as often as at home.

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  15. Call ahead. They’re open fairly late 9-10ish.

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  16. I am going to try it this weekend if they are open. Is there an online menu, what are their hours? I guess I can call first. I am excited about this. Although my experiences with Turkish restaurants has been hit or miss , when it’;s a hit it can be absolutely delicious. Turkish cuisine is much more subtle compared to Lebanese cuisine but still very similar, and equally tasty.
    I am still waiting for an authentic Lebanese/Arab spot in Santa Rosa. Just because a place says “Middle eastern” on it’s sign doesn’t translate to authentic (ie; East West cafe).
    Looking forward to trying Real Doner in Petaluma. Thanks for the heads up!

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  17. This is wonderful news! One thing we have lacked around here is good, real Turkish food, one of my aboslute favourite cuisines. Real Gyro, during its brief existence, had the best Turkish food I have had outside Turkey. I’ve been to all of the places in San Francisco and not one quite makes the grade. Every time I come back from Turkey, I immediatel miss the cuisine. If there is one restaurant to actually make me drive all the way down to Petaluma to eat (and there are some there I love), it is this. Turkish cuisine is wonderfully subtle, varied, apparently simple yet surprisingly complex. Similar to Greek, Arabic, Persian, Central Asian, Balkan, Caucasian, and Russian cuisines, it is far more than any, an incredible blend of all of these traditions. In part, this is due to the extremely varied character of the country itself, its widely different microclimates and geographical regions, and the mixture of people – Anatolian, Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian, Central Asian, Circassian, etc. – who make up the Turks themselves.

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  18. On the website link it says “Real Donner” and I was thinking as in Party? Yuck

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  19. I’ve been there a couple times now, once when my kid was having a hunger fit while we waited for our order. Joe immediately brought out some complimentary hummus and bread and my kid immediately calmed down. They are definitely proud of their food with good reason. Great flavors and some of the friendliest service in town!

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  20. Yes! Finally! Actual Turkish food, not generic “Mediterranean cuisine.” I fell in love with Turkish cuisine deep in the Kapadokya region, where I befriended the owner of a fab little restaurant in Goreme. Guys, if you’re reading, I’m hoping you make fresh ayran, and that there might occasionally be imam bayildi, manti and patlican! Will come see you very soon!

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  21. Yummy food! Nice people! Menu is difficult to figure out.

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