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Turkish Cuisine and Bakery

5605 N. Clark


Every Christmas Eve, my family gets Chinese takeout and rents a movie, as is the tradition among big-city Jews like us. This year we tried something new. I packed my wife and three kids into our Ford Contour and journeyed east to Turkish Cuisine & Bakery at Bryn Mawr and Clark. I’d tried Turkish food once before, in 1997, at a then-new restaurant that I don’t want to shame by mentioning, where I was served a meat pie covered with an unappetizing green slop. I swore it off for life. But a Ukrainian friend, Galina, recently persuaded me to give it a second chance. Anything worth trying once is worth trying again, she argued with impenetrable logic. Plus, she said, this place has belly dancing. How could I resist? A regular customer who’d become friendly with the owners–Engin Cardak and his wife, Marina–Galina made arrangements for us Felshmans to join her family and some Russian friends. We’d bring the wine and she’d bring the vodka. (Turkish Cuisine is BYO.)

A week and a half earlier, Galina told me, she’d helped the Cardaks enlarge the place. “We were breaking down walls till three in the morning,” she said. The two-room restaurant now has a broad expanse of red carpet and a stage at the far end decorated with a strip of multicolored lights on a pole. Our table faced the stage and was bordered on one side by a closet and on the other by a dark alcove containing a tall hookah. We placed the baby on the floor and followed him as he scooted straight for it. At 14 months old, he doesn’t get out much.

The Russian contingent arrived at the same time as the hummus, baba ghanoush, and baskets of bread we’d ordered. Warm and flaky, the bread was better than pita–light enough to be a backdrop for the dips, yet tasty on its own when we ran out. Wineglasses were brought and our pinot noir was uncorked while the Russians decanted a 1.75-liter bottle of Skyy vodka into their water glasses.

After finishing a platter of assorted succulent kebabs, I stepped into the front room for a smoke. Wearing kitchen whites and high-tops, Engin Cardak invited me to sit with him over a cup of tea. Graying and careworn, he looks older than 36. Didn’t I like the dining room? he asked. Sure, I told him, I’d only left so as not to smoke around the baby, who by this time had fallen asleep.

Lighting a Marlboro, Cardak said the expansion had doubled the size of the place. They’d knocked down an archway and added new carpeting and a new paint job. Over the next few weeks he’ll enlarge the menu as well, which with more than 70 items is pretty big already. “Turkish cuisine is one of the biggest cuisines in the world,” he said. Sure, he could offer 10 kinds of kebab, but why not up it to 16? Noting that Turkey is bordered on three sides by water, he told me he plans to add fish as well–for instance, a kind of sea bass called levrek that’s indigenous to the Mediterranean and Black seas. He’s also putting a couple pasta dishes on the menu, for kids. Business is good and getting better, he said, which was sweet considering that four years ago he was broke and on the verge of leaving Chicago.

Originally from Izmir, Cardak moved to New York in 1991. He operated a bakery and a few restaurants in New Jersey. At the end of 1999, he was looking to move, and Chicago reminded him of his hometown. “If you look at the city [Izmir] from the west, it looks like the lakefront, it looks the same like Chicago,” he said. He scouted locations for a restaurant and thought he’d found a good one in a former carpet store on Clark near Belmont. “We checked the place is it OK from the city to be restaurant–they say it’s OK, you can make restaurant.” He rented two apartments upstairs, one for him and one for a cook from New York, hired a lawyer and an architect, and waited–first for the architect to complete the blueprints, then for formal approval from the city, which took nearly six months. (Conversion approvals are done electronically now, says a spokesperson from the zoning department, and can be accomplished in minutes, but in 2000 the system was much slower.)

Given the go-ahead, Cardak put in a new floor, a new ceiling, and new tile, but when he found out he’d have to submit a new application to use the parking lot in the back of the building, he gave up. He’d been waiting over a year, was over $200,000 in the hole, and still wasn’t open. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer. “I know that’s taking more than six months, that’s why I left all my money,” he said. “My ten years working is gone. If I wait another six months I will go minus and minus.” He sat down with his wife and son and considered whether they should move back to New York. His pride said stay. “I didn’t want to lose my name over there. They’re going to say he left and couldn’t make it anywhere else.”

Cardak opened in his current location in October 2001, then called MED Turkish Cuisine, and it was an instant success. “In three days 3,000 Turkish people come to the restaurant,” he said. “I don’t know how they find out, they were calling each other.” A couple of months later, the Reader ran a good review, then Chicago magazine, and he’s been going ever since. While Turks made up most of his clientele at first, Russians make up about half his business now. Russian musicians perform on weekends along with Turkish singers and belly dancers.

As we finished our tea and smokes, a belly dancer, Carmella, arrived and ran into the back to change her pants, which had split. Cardak returned to the basement, where he makes the Turkish bread (“We make this bread for Ramadan in Turkey,” he told me, “but here we serve it every day”), phyllo, and baklava.

Back in the dining room, the baby was still asleep, my older sons were busy ignoring and being ignored by two teenage girls, my wife was deep in conversation with Galina, and the Russians had at least .5 of their 1.75 liters of vodka left to drink. Baklava and Turkish coffee, more sweet than bitter, were proffered. Carmella danced for half an hour then gave the stage to a man with a goatee who cranked up a synthesizer and began playing something sounding improbably like “Hotel California,” at which the baby woke up, screaming. We hustled out, but Galina and the Russians were just getting started. –Jeffrey Felshman

Hot Doug’s Is Back

Connoisseurs of encased meats can finally get their fix: Hot Doug’s reopened for business on January 4. Closed since a fire in April destroyed its Roscoe Village location, the haute dog stand has moved half a mile west, but it’s got the same menu–including the city’s best veggie wiener, fries cooked in duck fat on Fridays and Saturdays, and Doug’s creative gourmet and wild-game sausages. Currently on the menu: smoked alligator served with remoulade and blue cheese, garlic lamb sausage with minty mustard cream sauce and feta, and jalapeno-cheddar pork sausage. It’s also got the same unfriendly hours: 10:30 to 4, Monday through Saturday. –Martha Bayne

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.