A little bit of Turkish authenticity comes to town.
The story of S&H Kebab House begins many moons ago in New Jersey, as these stories always do. The Garden State is like fate’s corner bar; it carefully orchestrates serendipitous encounters from frumpy Turnpike rest stops, rigorously landscaped Wisteria Lanes and many, many Cheesecake Factories. That’s how Sal Kucuk met Huseyin Yuksel 13 years ago. Fate, you could say.
Kucuk and Yuksel were both born in Turkey—the former in Eskisehir, the latter in Samsun—but were living and working in the ville d’Jerz of Clifton. Kucuk signed on to wait tables gratis at a friend’s restaurant, where Yuksel was the chef. The two became friends, and brainstorm clouds started to gather: a place of their own. With the authentic food of their homeland. Way beyond hummus and pita. Over the next 13 years, they planned, found locations and and watched them fall through. Each time, Yuksel would fly in from Alaska, from Orlando, from Pittsburgh. Each time, disappointment.
Then in February a space became available at Sixth and South. Leases were agreed upon. Down payments transacted. Papers signed. At the 11th hour, that deal also fell through—but resourceful Kucuk sniffed out another vacancy on the very same day: the former Overtures just down the block.
The space, well, it looked like a forgotten banquet hall—and frankly, it still does, with worn green carpets, cheap maroon cloths and heavy curtains painted on the walls—but Kucuk and Yuksel finally had their own spot. They named it S&H Kebab House, rightly, after themselves. And though it ain’t much of a looker, it serves some of the best kebabs around.
Kucuk grew up in the food biz (his parents owned diners) and he also owns the Rich and Black Horse Diners in Roxborough and Mount Ephraim, respectively. His Turkish heritage gives the menus a gentle seasoning with the nation’s most identifiable culinary exports (like the brittle, honeyed walnut-and-pistachio baklava). But it’s not the unapologetically authentic, occasionally unusual stuff you’ll find at he and Yuksel’s restaurant just off South Street. Already I’m plotting a return trip for taramasolata, the smooth carp roe puree sparked with lemon, and the arnavut cigeri (pan-fried cow liver), all served in the glow of green neon and illuminated fish tanks full of iridescent tetras.
The whole roasted baby eggplant stuffed with sauteed Turkish bird raisins, walnuts, red onions, green peppers and garlic didn’t ignite the sweet-and-savory fireworks those ingredients suggest—mostly because after the oven, it’s plunged into an artic chill—and though crisp, the pan-fried zucchini pancakes made from whipped, feta-enriched batter lacked balanced seasoning. All the dill made me ill, but the lush yogurt (cultured in-house) the flapjacks were served with was a good omen.
Like the kebabs, made with chicken or leg of lamb ground in-house, skewered on metal spits and cooked over open charcoals that imbue each stick with a smoky, almost sensual undertone. Turkish pepper paste reminiscent of Tunisian harissa stoked a fire in the long, sausage-shaped Adana kebabs, while the classic, familiar shish kebabs bring cubed lamb and chicken that had been marinating for days in yogurt, onion juice and tomato paste.
For both the shish and the doner kebabs, Yuksel starts with whole legs of lamb butchered, trimmed and trussed in the S&H kitchen, and you can taste the time and effort in each tender, succulent bite.
All that meat (plus kofte, the luscious grilled Turkish lamb meatballs) come over rice on the mixed grill, a kebab party big enough for two that costs $21.95. There was so much extra, the buttery shavings of doner wound up boosting my omelet the next morning. But that doesn’t mean you should miss the manti—Turkish lamb dumplings shaped like thimble-sized beggar’s purses tossed in garlicky yogurt, mint and sumac.
Unfortunately, the manti aren’t made in-house (Yuksel sources them from a pasta-maker from his homeland), but no worries; neither is the excellent pita bread. I don’t want to tell you where the springy, chewy loaves come from, since I’m pretty sure praising them will banish me to foodie purgatory—but rest assured, lightly grilled and served warm, they’re delicious. (Hint: The purveyor rhymes with Vestaurant Repo.)
I know, I know. I thought it would turn me to dust when I said it aloud too! Kucuk and Yuksel have a bread oven on order, and they’re about two months out from baking their own pita, as well as lavash and Turkish pizza. Whatever that is, I’m guessing (and hoping) it has lamb and thinking (and expecting) it will be as inexpensive, simple and honest as their kebabs.