Fast Food International: Çiğköftem
Country of origin: Turkey
Locations worldwide: Around 175 in Austria, Belgium, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United States
NYC locations: One, in the East Village
I initially wanted to say that this new Turkish chain, which has arrived with little fanfare, was so under the radar that they had forgone any signage, but it turns out that the bare storefront was only due to a Coen Brothers movie being filmed on that block. The colorful awning and window menu should now be back to their original state.
Though less bare than the take-out restaurant's temporary appearance belied, the concept couldn't be more simple. Çiğköftem is the name of both the establishment and the base for all three menu items. The product is a mixture of bulgur, tomato paste, and an unnamed 18 spices that sits in plastic-wrapped pre-formed balls waiting to be used. The slightly ruddier ones are spicy, though even the mild has a little kick.
This is the closest thing I've encountered to vegetarian tartare, and in fact, that's exactly what it's meant to be. Traditional çiğ köfte (sometimes spelled chee kufta) is a Turkish raw meat preparation using beef or lamb that looks exactly like these red, squiggly hand-formed logs.
Like at Subway, you can view and pick your accompaniments. The works will include green onions, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley and mint. Before rolling, wraps are finished off with a squirt of lemon juice and tarted up further with a drizzle of more-tangy-than-sweet pomegranate molasses.
Wraps ($4.50) are crammed with six links of mock çiğ köfte in a tortilla-like pita for a substantial hand-held meal. Once you get past the Play-Doh appearance and texture of the raw main ingredient, the chile-hot soft filling and crisp vegetables are a great combination and would make a healthier falafel alternative for anyone seeking a Mediterranean vegan fix.
You can also order what they call a portion ($6) which is a ready-to-assemble package of ten patties with all of the trimmings and a pita to roll your own.
The burger ($3) looks a little sad compared to the other items, but it's also priced accordingly. It was developed specifically for this first US branch (a New Jersey outpost is coming soon) so perhaps it's a work in progress.
And if you buy enough food, they'll send you off with a reusable fabric tote.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and reformed librarian. Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.