The Doner Kebab House is camouflaged behind the Central Market’s gum and candy racks, pop coolers and chip stands, but despite being hard to see from the street, the Turkish restaurant has quickly become a favorite with the Downtown lunch crowd.
Chef Mehmet Kokangul opened the restaurant in November and struggled through a few slow months before word got out about the top-notch kebabs, falafel, salads and desserts he was cooking up.
Doner Kebab’s $5 lunch specials are especially popular, with plates piled high with rice, two types of salad, pita bread and the meat of the day.
Kokangul also is known for throwing in his own roasted green chiles or other morsels that caught his fancy that day.
“When we opened, sometimes I did $25 for whole day. Sometimes I did $60. It was very risky because nobody knows our food here in this area. It took almost 10 months, but now I am happy,” he said.
His Turkish specialties include Adana kebabs – long ground beef patties with a mildly spicy and tangy taste, and shish chicken and beef, which are cooked on his grill, also known as his “baby.” His onion salad is a unique addition to lunch plates as well.
He also makes his own gyro meat, a combination of steak and ground beef, as well as baba ghanoush, hummus and cacik, a Turkish-style yogurt sauce.
For 16 years Kokangul worked in kebab joints in his native Adana, Turkey, before moving to Albuquerque in 2007 after visiting his brother and deciding he liked it here. He cooked for a while at a sushi bar on Kirtland Air Force Base then decided to test out his own place. He prides himself on not using frozen meat or vegetables.
“Everything needs to be fresh here,” he said.
And he treats his customers more like friends and family. For regulars who have allergies or other issues with certain foods, it’s surprising when Kokangul remembers and offers them something new he knows they can eat.
“I cook with my heart,” Kokangul said. “I love to make people smile.”
He said he grew up watching his parents cook and came to love it.
“When I am talking with my mother, we just talk about food,” he said. “It is closed here Sundays, but I am cooking at home Sunday.”
Anything Kokangul wants to make, he has to run by his younger brother and toughest critic, Umut, first.
“I tell him if it’s not good enough,” Umut Kokangul said.
Vegetarian options include the falafel sandwich, which is truly outstanding. Kokangul manages to crisp the outsides of the falafel balls to a crunchy shell while not drying out the insides, and his homemade mix is delicious. Those wanting to avoid eating meat also can get the vegetarian plate, which includes falafel, dolmas, salad and pita bread.
His desserts are constantly changing, depending on what he feels like making. It might be homemade baklava, rice pudding or revani, a cake with orange syrup and coconut shavings on top.
After lunch, his authentic Turkish coffee remedies the usual post-midday meal fatigue.
Customer Thomas Dearholt summed up the feelings of many regulars when he called Doner Kebab House, “a diamond in the rough.”