Ismet Yilmaz fills his new Turkish eatery, Istanbul Cafe & Bakery, with so much energy that even when just a few customers occupy tables inside the bare-bones space, it seems lively. Conversations erupt across the counter, between tables and even at the front door, where neighbors greet each other in English, Turkish and a smattering of Eastern European languages.
Turkey has long been a culinary crossroads at the edge of Europe and Asia, but here in Denver, the rarity of Turkish cuisine creates demand among immigrants from other countries with similar foods — Bulgaria, Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to name a few.
Istanbul Cafe & Bakery is tucked into a shopping center at the corner of Leetsdale Avenue and South Monaco Parkway, in a section of east Denver with a sizable population of Russians and Eastern Europeans. Although the eatery just opened at the beginning of April, Yilmaz says that customers are already lining up for tables on Saturday and Sunday mornings. "For fifteen years, I dream of this," he adds, pointing to his post-lunch snack of fistiki baklava (one of several baklava varieties that he sells) and tea sipped from an hourglass-shaped vessel.
Yilmaz was born in Artvin, Turkey, near the Georgian border, but grew up in the Aegean port city of Izmir. He began his culinary career working in resort hotels in Turkey before moving to New York City. Eleven years ago he came to Denver, keeping the dream of owning his own business alive until 2017, when he made it a reality by launching his food truck, Turkish Chef on Wheels. "It's still the only Turkish food truck in town," he notes.
That was just the start, though: He wanted to open a brick-and-mortar location, and with the help of business partners Soner and Marla Celik, he found this spot and opened Istanbul Cafe.
Many Turkish dishes — kabobs and spit-roasted meats, manti (small meat-filled dumplings), stuffed grape leaves and flaky pastries, for example — are familiar to fans of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food in general. Yilmaz attibutes that to the influence of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled for centuries over Turkey, the Balkan Peninsula, the eastern Mediterranean and parts of North Africa. The savory street food that he sells from his food truck doesn't stray too far from the expected (though he does build his own beef-and-lamb döner kebab spits by hand, an uncommon practice here). But at Istanbul Cafe, the variety of breakfast and lunch options delves much deeper into foods seldom seen in Denver.
For starters, there are breakfast platters built the way that Turkish people often start their mornings — with a little of everything. The Annem's (Mom's) Plate comes with enough cheeses, veggies, savory pastries and breads (with several spreads), eggs and olives for two people for $20; the $12 Babam's (Dad's) Plate comes with a similar but scaled-back selection. Small cups of Turkish coffee make a good accompaniment if you'd prefer something stronger than tea.
Specialty breads include acma, which Yilmaz describes as a cross between a bagel and a croissant. The dough is layered and twisted into a circular form, creating a slightly chewy but still light crumb when baked. Acma contain less butter than croissants, though, so they're not as flaky or oily. Istanbul Cafe serves them plain, with Nutella or as a breakfast sandwich with egg and sucuk, a sausage with distinct notes of cumin. You can also get grilled breakfast and lunch sandwiches called tosts, made on sourdough bread.
Similar to acma is the simit — another bagel-shaped roll, but with a texture more like a soft pretzel and a generous coating of sesame seeds. And pogaca buns resemble little footballs stuffed with feta cheese.
Layered savory pastries called su boregi are loaded with cheese and served in rectangular slices; Yilmaz says they're best eaten with your hands. He works with a wholesale bakery to create the baked goods for his shop; the su boregi come to the cafe raw and are baked in-store for added freshness. A second bakery provides four varieties of Bosnian-style borek, coiled pastries filled with ground beef, potato or cheese and spinach.
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For dessert, the cafe offers seven different pastries, some of which are variations on baklava, filled with either pistachios (Yilmaz insists on using nuts imported from a famous pistachio-growing region in Turkey) or walnuts. Others include kadayif (with layers of shredded dough), fishkh sarma (deep-green cylinders of pistachio paste) and sobiyet (similar to baklava, but with a creamy filling). Yilmaz also stocks his cafe with canned and bottled Turkish beverages and Marash, a brand of goat-milk ice cream as recognizable in Turkey as Baskin-Robbins is in the U.S.
The cafe is set up for counter service, so customers order and pay before grabbing a table and waiting for their food. A pair of Russian women at one table may discover fellow Russians at the next and strike up a conversation about the foods they miss. Curious Denver natives pop in for a taste of something new. And Turkish customers are already greeted as regulars. The city's Turkish population is small, Yilmaz explains, so he has to rely on a variety of customers to build a solid base.
At Istanbul Cafe & Bakery, they can all enjoy a rare taste of Turkey — and Yilmaz's tea-fueled enthusiasm.
Istanbul Cafe & Bakery is located at 850 South Monaco Parkway; it's open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. The restaurant is closed Monday. Call 720-536-5455 for more details.