Not That Turkey

Where have all the Turkish restaurants been? Hiding in plain sight as "Mediterranean" cafes.

So maybe the sudden arrival of two new Turkish restaurants to George Bush's hometown shouldn't come as a surprise. I don't think Turks are flocking to Houston. It's just that these places probably would have called themselves Mediterranean restaurants a few years ago. Who knows? Now that Turkey is cool, maybe lots of Middle Eastern restaurants in Houston will suddenly reveal that they were Turkish all along. One thing's for sure, a revival of Turkish pride is going to force us to reconsider the culinary history of the Middle East.

The Turks didn't invent things so much as they took ingredients and dishes from various parts of their empire and refined them, Turkish food experts explain. Coffee actually came from Yemen, but it was Turkey that gave the world its coffee-drinking traditions. Baklava came from the Assyrians and the Armenians, but it reached its pinnacle in the palaces of the sultans.

Eventually, the luxurious fare of wealthy Turks trickled down to the common people throughout the empire. The world's first pastry shops, for instance, catered to the middle class in Constantinople and other provincial capitals.

Think Middle Eastern meats are too dry? Try the "yogurt grill" and the stuffed cabbage at Empire Turkish Grill.
Troy Fields
Think Middle Eastern meats are too dry? Try the "yogurt grill" and the stuffed cabbage at Empire Turkish Grill.

Location Info


Empire Turkish Grill

12448 Memorial Drive
Houston, TX 77024

Category: Restaurant > Mediterranean

Region: Outer Loop - NW


713-827-7475. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Small appetizer plate: $9
Imam bayildi: $5
Lebni: $3.75
Iskender kebab: $9.95
Chicken in garlic cream: $9.75
Stuffed cabbage: $9

12448 Memorial Drive

So it can be argued that Turkish food is actually the mother of all Middle Eastern cuisines. According to this view, the cooking styles of former Ottoman countries are just local variations on Turkish food. ("Greek food is Turkish food cooked badly" is another way this sentiment is sometimes expressed.) We think of moussaka and baklava as Greek because they were brought to America by Greek immigrants, but the words themselves are Turkish.

So while the mezeler plate at Empire Turkish Grill represents the foods of many regions, it was the Turkish sultans who had the luxury of putting all these things together. In cosmopolitan Constantinople, Asian eggplant and okra, Persian spinach and caviar, Arabic hummus and tabbouleh, and all the delicacies of the Ottoman Empire could be assembled on one plate.

As diverse as this cuisine's origins are, Turkish and Middle Eastern entrées almost always consist of skewer-cooked meats over rice. The problem is the meats often taste dry, and there's seldom any sauce. The eggplant kabob at both Rumi and Istanbul Grill offers one remedy. But at Empire Turkish Grill, I found far more imaginative solutions.

Most of the grilled kabobs here are also available in the form of a "yogurt grill." Seasoned bread cubes are covered with yogurt and then topped with the kabob meat. I tried the ground lamb gyro meat over the yogurt and bread with tomato sauce on top, a combination known as iskender kebab. The addition of the two sauces turned the slices of zesty gyro meat into an excellent main course.

Also in the kabob section of the menu, Empire offers outstanding Turkish lamb chops, which are marinated so that they stay tender and moist despite being cooked well done.

Another way around the dry kabobs is to go for casserole-type dishes. But these can be hit-or-miss. Has tuvuk, for instance, a stew of chicken chunks in cream and garlic sauce, was a little too bland for my taste. The lahana dolmasi, cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and herbs, were a pleasant shock, however. Except for the yogurt sauce on the side, they tasted just like the stuffed cabbages my Ruthenian grandma used to make. I guess that makes sense since the Ottoman Empire also included parts of Ukraine.

Maybe it's time to forgive and forget whatever we had against the Ottoman Empire. Sure, they were a little overbearing in the military department for a few hundred years, but hey, they can really cook stuffed cabbage.

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