Istanbul Shish Kabob delivers authentic Middle Eastern cuisine
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Sliding into a long booth at Istanbul Shish Kabob, there’s a lot to take in: Cooks in an open kitchen churning out plates of fragrant char-grilled meats; piping hot house-made bread spitting out of a toaster oven-looking contraption near the cash register; families breaking said bread to use as a vessel to scoop up hummus made with tahini shipped from Lebanon or thinly sliced lamb served with saffron-scented basmati rice.
The sights, sounds and smells remind me of childhood hockey trips with my dad to Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and other cities within driving distance of my hometown Pittsburgh. Our culinary adventures from 1999-2006 established my relationship with food. They’re also guiding the theme for The Post and Courier’s Charleston’s Menu newsletter.
I’m in search of the restaurants worth seeking out, and each week, I’ll detail the next stop on my culinary tour of Charleston. Sometimes I’ll interview the owner; other times I’ll just pop in for a bite to eat. My first stop was Istanbul Shish Kabob in North Charleston.
Making a back door entrance
I walked into the back door of the restaurant (this wasn’t by design; Google Maps sends you to the rear of the building) and went to the front to grab a menu. This turned out to be an unnecessary exercise — after seeing me out of the corner of his eye, owner Emad Hammad came to my table to greet me with two long platters of dips, salads, spreads, sauces, falafel, char-grilled vegetables, pickles and grape leaves served in cups of lettuce. Everything at Istanbul Shish Kabob is made from scratch, he said while enthusiastically describing each dish.
Shortly thereafter, the meat arrived: Chunks of kofta, beef kabobs, lamb racks and chicken shawarma. It sounds like a lot of food — and it is — but it’s hard to stop eating. This is undoubtedly not the traditional approach, but I chose to grab a piping hot piece of bread and sop up a condiment (like Hammad’s creamy garlic sauce) before finding the nearest piece of meat. It’s hard to argue with the chicken shawarma and garlic sauce combination, but for me, nothing beats the lamb with a chunky spread Hammad says is made with Aleppo pepper paste, lemon and walnuts.
When I think back to the passion and excitement Hammad displayed that afternoon, it brings me joy and admiration. He wasn’t just putting on a show either; I watched him and his staff engage the same way with every table.
A walk down memory lane
More than any other Charleston meal in recent memory, my feast at Istanbul Shish Kabob reminded me of those trips with my dad. When I told him about Istanbul Shish Kabob, he refreshed my memory of Iraqi Kabob, a restaurant in Dearborn, Mich. that we visited multiple times during my childhood.
Hammad was born and raised in Jordan to an Israeli father and Turkish mother, so his cuisine is a mashup of those three countries. A picture of the menu at Iraqi Kabob looks quite different from what I ate at Istanbul Shish Kabob, but there are a few similarities: Hummus, kabobs, pickled vegetables and Iraqi tea, which sounds similar to the mint tea that concluded my meal at Istanbul Shish Kabob.
You’re reading an excerpt of CHS Menu, a new food newsletter from The Post and Courier’s Food Editor Parker Milner. The newsletter features new and undiscovered restaurants in the Charleston area. Plus subscribers get access to The Post and Courier food section. To learn more visit their website: https://www.postandcourier.com/subscribe/food