Cag Kebab at Café Istanbul – NBC Chicago

Several countries lay claim to the kebab, but few do them better than Turkey.

There’s shish kebab, adana kebab and of course döner – what the Greeks call gyros – but there’s another kebab I fell in love with on a recent trip to Istanbul. It comes from the Erzurum Province in Northeastern Turkey, and it’s an ancestor to the popular döner.

The only place in the U.S. where I found a chef with the courage to make it is here in Wicker Park.

Döner is everywhere in Istanbul.

The majestic towers of lamb and beef are essential to the Turkish diet. But there’s also cag kebab, the vertical döner’s horizontal ancestor, made from all lamb. Both have one thing in common.

“It all starts with quality meat,” said Turkish food writer Cemre Torun. “And then the craftsmanship of the usta – the master – who stacks it and then cuts it so it’s really thinly cut. For both of them, charcoal is essential.”

In the Old City, horizontal cones of cag are stacked, cooked and sliced all day long at Sehzade.

“They cut it, and then they can also put it on the grill last minute,” she said.

Those last few seconds over high heat sear the lamb; to eat, just pick up a skewer.

“You eat it off the skewer. We ate it fresh off the spit which was excellent and succulent and so juicy and beautiful,” said Torun.

In Wicker Park, the cooks at Café Istanbul say they’re the only ones making cag kebab in the U.S., and it’s hard to find proof otherwise. Just like Istanbul, sourcing lamb is key.

“It’s kind of hard to find sometimes that quality of the meat,” said Mustafa Guler, Chef and Owner of Café Istanbul. “We find the local butchers.”

He also found an usta, or master of the grill, who knows what it takes to make this ancient dish.

“It is a lot of work. To bring the meat, clean it, marinate it and skewer it.”

The restaurant features all kinds of kebabs – including lots of lamb – but it’s the enormous, charcoal fueled spit that commands most of their attention. Guler says don’t be afraid to eat it directly off of the skewer.

Here’s where you can go:

Café Istanbul

2014 W. Division St.


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