The Esar family has years of experience in the culinary industry — locally and abroad. Since its beginning in 2019, the family behind Istanbul has taken pride in the Tucson restaurant’s diverse and extensive menu.
Kamran Esar and his brothers are the chefs who prep everything in the kitchen. The entire menu is prepared by them aside from all of the desserts, which are baked by their mother, and the meat that their father prepares.
Fun fact: Their father has more than 45 years of butchery experience, which dates back to when he lived in Istanbul.
From appetizers to Mediterranean soups, fresh salads, pita sandwiches, grilled wraps, kebab plates, seafood, vegetarian dishes, and homemade desserts to cocktails, Turkish coffee, and tea, the restaurant offers a comprehensive and authentic dining experience. Their menu represents a fusion of Turkish and Mediterranean culinary heritage as well as a nifty selection for vegetarians, meat lovers, and vegans alike.
“One of the biggest differences between Turkish and Mediterranean are the spices,” said Kamran. “Our food is homemade —it’s all fresh. The sauces are made in a unique style and there are no processed meats or vegetables on the menu.”
With an emphasis on freshness and quality, as most of the items are scratch-made and crafted in-house, they take pride in using authentic ingredients and techniques. Istanbul is one of the few local restaurants in town serving all Halal meats, and some of their products are even flown in from across the sea to ensure the quality meets the Esars’ standards.
“The spices we use come from Turkey,” Kamran added. “Some of my favorite dishes are the clay pots, lamb shank, doner, chicken doner, and the vegetarian menu.”
More times than I can count on my fingers, I’ve ordered my food to-go (usually because I’m drinking beer next door at Casa Video & Film Bar), but Istanbul also lures me in with its full bar menu and Turkish beverages to level up the experience.
Beers include an Istanbul lager and white ale with a few other types of beer like a rotating IPA. There are also nearly 10 wines on hand and then a variety of cocktails they’ve added their own spin to. Two types of margaritas (the classic and a Bloody Margarita in the realm of a bloody mary), the Russian Czar (a Russian vodka with cranberry juice and lime), and a Turkish Delight — a concoction including Raki (the national drink of Turkey) mixed with club soda on the rocks with fresh mint.
The warmth of their Turkish coffee amps me up before I head out the door, but the soothing quality of their hot tea is a fun way to start your meal, as is tradition.
Like many other restaurants in Tucson, Istanbul opened in 2019 right before the COVID pandemic stifled many opportunities to dine in person. Although, Istanbul rode the wave — resilience kicked into high gear. If anything, the pandemic made the family and the rest of the team even stronger than before.
“We helped our employees with wages when they didn’t even work,” Kamran added. “Our workers are like family to us. We’re just a great team. That’s what we stand for.”
And on that note, the pride they have for their craft along with their thoughtfulness and undeniable care expand way beyond the menu. It definitely keeps me going back for more.
The restaurant is currently open from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. on Tuesday – Sunday and closed on Monday. There’s a daily Happy Hour from 3 – 5 p.m., which includes $1 off all beer, wine, and cocktails.
Istanbul is located at 2945 E. Speedway Blvd. For more information, visit istanbultucson.com.
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