A few weeks back, I was at a party where I didn't know many people and it got out that I was a food critic. This discovery usually leads to a lengthy interrogation regarding my weight -- "Why aren't you fat?" -- but these guys were actually pretty cool. We hung out drinking beer and eating bad pizza.
At one point in the evening, an animated guy who reminded me of a Muppet sat down next to me and said he had a great burger for me to try. I get a lot of this too; the recommendations are rarely good, especially when they come from a drunk dude with a mouthful of Domino's. But he described the burger he had eaten with great passion. I couldn't help but to be drawn in.
He told me he ordered the beast at Izmir Deli -- not the café the north of the plaza, he clarified, but the more casual deli just south on Greenville Avenue. He described the meat and dripping condiments and cheese, and he described the flat bread that did its best to cradle it all. At some point, his face went slack and he became very serious.
"I'm serious," he said, his eyes slightly glassy. "It's called the Mediterranean burger and it's a really good burger."
The man's fantasy burger had seduced me.
It took me a few more weeks to get over to Izmir Deli. After the haze had faded and I realized how much shitty pizza I ate the night before, a burger that drips with mayonnaise wasn't at the top of my list of things to consume. I wanted some tabouleh, some steamed fish, or maybe a grape, but the thought of a burger served at a hole in the wall deli? My hangover intensified.
Eventually, though, I made it. Izmir Deli opened more than a decade ago, two years after owner Mehdi Nazari opened Izmir Café. The first space, a dimly lit, casual Mediterranean restaurant had become popular with diners on a budget. The deli is an even more casual space, tucked into a narrow storefront just down the street. There are a few tables and a bar that cuts the space in half, and the air is filled with the smell of searing beef.
Nazari, who uses the nickname Medi, came up with all sorts of new menu items for his deli. There are dolmas and humus and other dips you'd expect on a Mediterranean menu, and there are number of burgers and sandwiches that push past those assumptions. Nazari even configured one burger to his own liking and named it after himself. It's Medi burger: a sloppy number sopping with chipotle mayonnaise and topped with diced avocado and Swiss cheese. Just make sure you don't get it confused with the Mediterranean burger, as I did.
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By luck, the woman behind the counter double-checked with me. "Did you want the Mediterranean burger, or the Medi burger?" I had no clue. I asked her which was more popular. "The Medi," she said with just enough confidence. I went with it.
Back in the kitchen a cook pealed two flimsy pieces of paper from a tightly packed patty of ground beef. He sprayed both sized with cooking oil and pressed the meat into the grill. The scent filled the entire deli almost instantly, the comforting aroma of seared beef that perfumes diners and drive up burger stands.
In just a few moments, it arrived. Izmir has no fryers so the burgers and sandwiches are flanked by plain potato chips, and the burger is plated on a paper towel, presumably to absorb extra condiments. Picking up the Medi Burger requires great concentration, and if your mind wanders while you're eating you're sure end up dropping something.
Is it good? Just look at it and you'll know it appeals to certain pleasure receptors. The Medi burger will never win an award for best burger in the city, but it never aspired to such an award in the first place. It is a working-class burger, and if it were served in the deli on the first floor of your office building you would order it once a week at minimum. And if you find yourself on Greenville Avenue and in need of a gut bomb on the fly, you'd do well to duck your head into Izmir Deli. As for me, the next time the drunken Muppets get to talking at a pizza party, I'm going to pay a little more attention.