Imagine you’ve been on the road for several hours. You’re tired. You’re hungry. The kids are whining. What’s that smell? You see a budget hotel in the distance and decide to take refuge there. The website reports it has an onsite “casual eatery.” Sounds like things are turning your way. Hope you like pita bread, because this isn’t just any family-friendly, hotel diner. Nope. You’ve landed at Istanbul Shish Kabobs, at the site of the former Huddle House on Highway 17.
Unfortunately, as I discovered within minutes of ordering, Istanbul has very little to do with it. I love Turkish food. I’ve been all over the country on multiple occasions, but Istanbul Shish Kabobs is more reminiscent of a New York City street corner halal food cart.
The kofta sandwich ($7.99) finds a heavy-handed pita smothering a small portion of the fragrant spiced meatballs. Possessing a powerful cumin flavor, they’re cooked to a pink in the middle and pleasingly authentic. Sadly, however, the majority of the sandwich is actually just iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pita bread. The smidgen of tahini sauce, although rich and bright, isn’t plentiful enough to balance the bland drought.
Things fare no better with the lamb kabob sandwich ($8.99), a doppelganger of the former with a change of meat. Dry as a bone, the lightly smoky, yet gamy lamb flavor was only perceivable when removed from the smothering volumes of tasteless, unleavened bread.
Whether part of a conspiracy or not, the sandwiches are accompanied by some limp fries. Possessed of a strange, funky flavor, they’re damp, mealy, and a flashback to your elementary school cafeteria years. All that’s missing are some fish sticks and a tiny carton of milk.
Although the staff is notably friendly and clearly aim to please, the location feels inauspicious and somewhat haunted by the restaurant of yesteryear. Save for the two large spools of shawarma greeting you upon entry, the maroon, vinyl-covered, wooden booths and diner counter still screams “Huddle House.” So does the mustachioed chef statue outside, enthusiastically displaying a blank chalkboard sign into perpetuity.
The other thing that doesn’t feel particularly Turkish is the menu itself, veering more into basic doner kebab/shawarma-shop country than anything. Where are the cheesy su boregi, the piquant dolma, the lamb and garlic-stuffed eggplants, the rich and spicy borek, and all the other savory pastries? If nothing else, where is the yogurt? The Ottoman Empire is regrettably underrepresented.
While trying to choose between the Turkish chicken kebab sandwich ($7.99) and the white chicken kebab sandwich ($7.99), I inquired as to the difference between them and was told, “Turkish seasoning.”
Based on flavor alone, it appears Turkish seasoning may be a mix of oregano and cumin seed, heavy on the oregano. With a touch of char, yet still moist, the scant portion of chicken was drowned out by the powerful herb and the heavy-handed bread. The addition of pickles helped brighten the overabundance of meatless bites, but it just wasn’t enough. Maybe some hummus would help?
Speaking of which, it’s sold as a side ($3.99), and it’s rich with a high ratio of sesame tahini. By far, it’s the best thing going at Istanbul.
If you order as I did and try the hummus over schawarma plate ($10.99), you’ll realize the dish is named exactly as it’s served. Moreover, you may find yourself longing for some of that pita bread, as this plate doesn’t come with any.
Maybe there’s hope in the form of the falafel sandwich ($5.99)? A foodstuff with just as many high notes as terrible renditions, one always longs to relive the memory of their first Amsterdam-style mouthful. Sadly, this isn’t that. Gritty, greasy, and accompanied by the now usual suspects of lettuce, tomato, and a spritz of tahini, it was exceedingly disappointing. So much so, that I went back to try it again in case (fingers crossed) the first was just an off-day. No such luck. The encore — in the form of the falafel appetizer ($3.99) — arrived less greasy, but still wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Formed in a “top o’ the muffin” shape, it was almost impenetrable. Thankfully, the appetizer arrived with ample — and perfectly made — tahini sauce, rendering this the second-best item I had.
Bottom line? In a city that has many solid takes on Mediterranean — the excellent Leyla’s Lebanese, the great falafel at Ali Baba just down the road, Taziki’s with appealing ambience and price point — there are far better options. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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