For anyone who has traveled through Europe on a shoestring budget the significance of the döner kebab can’t be overestimated. Imported by Turkish immigrants in the seventies, the döner has become one of the most popular and affordable street foods in all of Europe. Travel through the subcontinent and you will no doubt find yourself quickly addicted to the kebab stands that never lie to far from the nearest bar or club. The döner kebab is a close of cousin of the Lebanese shawarma and the Greek gyro, consisting of roast meat shaved from a vertical spit tucked inside a split pocket of bread then garnished with salad, yogurt, and a pungent red chili sauce. The sandwich makes for a satisfying meal that is both portable and compact, essential elements of any great street food. In fact, döner has reached such levels of populist acclaim in Germany that it is the subject of a well-known drinking song, “Ich Bein Ein Döner” whose chorus roughly translates to “sandwiches makes you fat, sushi makes you crazy, pizza makes you horny, but döner makes you beautiful”. Needless to say, something is lost in translation. Though I haven’t visited Germany in over 2 years, the craving of a late night döner seems always fresh in my money. Los Angeles, despite being one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, seems to boast relatively few Turkish restaurants and even fewer who specialize in döner kebab. A laborious hunt turned up two promising prospects, Spitz, which has branches in both Eagle Rock and Little Tokyo, and Sofra Kebab Express in Palms.
Spitz, as further testament to the lure of the döner, opened in 2006 as the brainchild of two restaurateurs who after backpacking through Spain decided to found a restaurant that would serve the food they fell in love with. The restaurant exemplifies the “casual gourmet” style of cuisine that has become very common in parts of the city. The döner here is offered on a choice of thin lavash bread or foccacia; the latter serving as an excellent substitute for unique thick style of pita that is used in Europe. The veggies that come piled on the sandwich are fresh and crisp; contrasting with the tender slices of lamb/beef; moist with just enough grease to remind you that you’re eating street food. Though the sandwich captures the texture of the original well, the seasonings fall relatively flat. The usual flavors of bright red chile sauce and garlicky yogurt are too muted in Spitz’s version. Perhaps they cater too much to the tastes of, as SinoSoul puts it, “Crit Mass Vegheads”. To be clear, the sandwich is certainly praiseworthy, but seems to fall a few notches short of the rich flavors I had hoped for. Worth a mention were the Street Cart Fries, a creative twist on Greek salad, which took crisp and oily fries and topped them with healthful provisions of tomato, onion, peppers and feta cheese.
I had high hopes for my next stop in Palms, Sofra Kebab Express. Outside the Turkish restaurant was a banner that proudly featured the elusive promise of “döner kebab”. Could it be? So close to my own neighborhood? Alas, the döner here was a flop, the meat had an oddly potted texture that was discernible from gyro served in a local mall food court. The sandwiches were served in either a grilled hoagie roll or flour tortilla, along with slathering of bland yogurt sauce and the handful of iceberg salad mix. Perhaps, ordering hookah would have been a better choice.
Spitz is the obvious winner here, and deservedly so, yet I can’t help but feel like the sandwich lies somewhere between an inventive re-imagining and a passable imitation. I have no doubt that I will visit Spitz again soon, but the hunt for something comparable to the original will continue. Though I have a feeling that when it comes to matching my döner memories, the hunt will ultimately be a fruitless one.
371 E 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012