Schwarma. Gyro. Trompo. Döner.
The popular fast food has many names, but only one of them is taking Houston by storm: The döner kebap, a German street food staple brought to the Bayou City by two Austinites who own the restaurant Verts. Sound complicated? It's gets more tangled.
The Germans claim the döner kebap was invented in Berlin in the 1970s by a Turkish immigrant named Mahmut Aygun. According to an obituary in The Telegraph from 2009, Aygun was born in Turkey and moved to Germany at the age of 16. He opened a snack stall there and sold kebab meat cooked on a rotating spit and served over rice. After noticing drunk people struggling to stumble home with the food in tow or reticent to sit at his counter and eat, he decided to invent a more handy means of edible transport. He stuffed the meat into a pita and sent diners on their merry way.
The Telegraph reports that the first such sandwiches--if you can call them that--was served at Aygun's restaurant, Hasir, on March 2, 1972. Today, Verts Kebap is serving the same sort of meal right here in Houston. The first location on Yale north of Washington opened last week, and the owners are planning on opening at least four more locations in the coming weeks and months.
But Houston has Turkish food. We have trompo and gyros. What's the big deal with the döner?
The döner kebap, so named by Aygun after the Turkish word dondurmek, which translates to a rotating roast, quickly became one of Germany's most popular street foods, possibly eclipsing currywurst, french fries and leberkäse as the No. 1 item. In fact, if you do a Google image search for "German street food," most of the photos are of döner kebaps.
Which brings us to Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein, who moved to Austin from Germany to pursue master's degrees in business at the University of Texas. When they got to Austin, they found the food scene lively, but they missed their good ol' döner kebaps from home. Sure, they found gyros and schwarma, but it just wasn't the same. Upon graduating in 2011, the two decided to do something about their cravings, and they opened Verts: Berlin Inspired Kebap near the UT campus.
After opening nine locations in and around Austin, the duo decided to expand to Houston, opening the first Verts just north of Washington last week. The food initially debuted at our own Menu of Menus before the shop hosted a grand opening on Saturday, April 12. The next location will be opening at 1572 West Gray Street in River Oaks on Wednesday, April 23, and the third store will be located at 15556 Cutten Road in Vintage Park.
Less than a week after formally opening in Houston, Verts seems to be making an impact. I've heard numerous food writers talking about how much they enjoy the healthy fast food, and when I checked out the place for myself at lunch recently, there was a decent crowd. People seem to be lured in primarily by two things: The fact that each kebap contains 544 calories or fewer, and the idea that we've totally been missing out on this German fast food phenomenon.
Here in Houston, we consider ourselves extremely multicultural. We've got the food scene and the national accolades to back that up. And now we finally have döner kebaps.
When I went for lunch, I ordered two kebaps, both just for me--a chicken and a vegetarian. The vegetarian one contains a few patties made of potato, carrot and celery with herbs, but that can be substituted for grilled veggies if you choose. The chicken was sliced fresh off the rotating spit and piled into a pita.
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There's an array of sauces to choose from at Verts. They're all yogurt-based except for the hot sauce, which does indeed pack a punch. The menu lists sauce recommendations based upon the meat choice, so I went with house yogurt, vinaigrette and hot sauce with my chicken and house yogurt and spicy red sauce with the veggie patties. When piled high with spring mix greens, tomatoes, corn, onions and feta cheese, both kebaps were delicious. Surprisingly so. Like, so delicious and refreshing they were hard to stop eating (but I knew I had to because I really don't need two whole sandwiches for lunch).
The chicken was tender, juicy and slightly spiced, not at all dry, as I was expecting from meat that had been rotating in front of a heat source for God knows how long. The veggie patties were equally flavorful, and the lightly toasted pita bread was doughy and held up well under the heft of its stuffing.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me, though, were the french fries, which I ordered on a whim just because I love french fries. They were some of the best I've had in a while. Fast food style thin and crispy with just the right amount of crunch on the outside, while still soft on the inside. There was nary a soggy fry in sight.
So, I get it, Germany. I get it, Austin. I get the obsession with döner kebaps. Will they change my life or make up the bulk of my diet? Probably not. But I can't wait to go back and eat some more.