Thursday, April 23, 2009

Alvi Kebob

Foreign cuisine and its availability leave an unmistakable imprint on a visitor’s mind. If you walk into the downtown area and smell whiffs of a dozen different national scents—the food kind—you feel you are in an international, modern environment. If you smell only varying degrees of oil being deep-fried, or a dozen different ways to serve potatoes, you’re very unlikely to be looking forward to mealtime.

Tartu, in its own way, is becoming more international. Slowly maybe, but it is happening. A decade ago, there were a handful of restaurants and kiosks. The restaurants more or less all served pork with some sort of blue cheese and pineapple-flavored side dishes, and the kiosks all offered hamburgers with more ketchup and mayonnaise than mystery meat and bread. These places are still around and thriving, but you have a lot more variety if you don’t like gourmet ketchup sauces.

My absolute favorite thing about Western Europe is the food. And I don’t really care for Western European food that much. It’s the kiosk culture of immigrant food. It’s cheap, it’s everywhere, and it’s fantastic! Middle Eastern cuisine is very much a large part of this, and now we have a taste of it in Tartu. Alvi Kebab. Slices of real meat off a real döner kebob-style vertical spit. The kind where you can never be too sure of the meat’s age.

I say “meat” because I’m not sure what kind they serve here. It tastes like chicken! But I suspect it’s some other meat because inside the trailer slash kitchen you can see an industrial-size bottle of Santa Maria’s chicken spice. And these kebobs do qualify as immigrant food, even though there’s nothing Turkish or Middle Eastern about the owner. He’s a German-German married to an Estonian-Estonian, and speaks Estonian too. He brought a kebob kiosk wagon trailer thingy all the way from Almanya (Turkish for Germany) and the prices are still visible auf Deutsch in euros.

Not to be confused with authentic Turkish food, we must understand that the döner kebob was in fact invented by a Turkish immigrant to Germany in the seventies to suit the local tastes. And the döner kebob offered at Alvi’s has been modified yet again to fit the Estonian market and tastes. I would call this more of a fusion kebob, because it’s wrapped in Poco Loco-brand Mexican tortillas, not stuffed into pita because, according to the chef working when I asked—Kristiina—they can’t get pita. In Estonia or just in Tartu, I don’t know, but I don’t doubt it. And it has lots of Polish-grown cabbage for a filler. And if you order the works (including lots of Santa Maria chili peppers), it causes an atomic reaction in your bowels, if you’re a true Estonian. That’s not meant to be offensive—it’s just my experience that anything that is even slightly stronger than black pepper greatly offends locals’ taste buds and bellies.

The problem is, these kebobs are hard to get. There are no hours posted, and I have seen no pattern to when they’re open. Often closed for lunch, it’s a very unreliable place to plan to go to. You just have to be lucky, but have a Plan B. Luckily it’s close to everything. Go to the parking lot behind the Old Kaubamaja department store.

But if it is open, you’re in for somewhat of an experience. Set at the edge of a Soviet-era parking lot and grassy knoll that was paved on top of Dubya Dubya Two ruins, you can smell the glasnost while you stand on cigarette butts looking at the modern glass structures across the street, trying not to spill sauce on your shoes or eat tin foil. It just makes sense to take it home. It’s messy. But it’s usually cold by the time I get inside. I thought it would be better to eat there, not give it a chance to cool off, but it made no difference. The fillings aren’t heated apparently.

The staff have been nothing but extremely polite and eager to explain this new advance in food preparation technology, although I’m still not clear on what the difference is between the kebob, kebob wrap and kebob maxi wrap, which I’m not enthusiastic to try. Why is everything in Estonia maxi? Would you like a pizza, or a maxi pizza? Should we go to the hypermarket or Maximarket or Maxima? Kas soovite juustu maxi einele?

These fusion kebobs fill you up but you want more, they’re so good. Don’t eat those last bites, no matter how much of a shame it is to waste those last bites. It’s delicious, but the last bites are there only to hold up the next-to-last bites. If you try to get them, you’ll smell like döner the rest of the day.

I guess the toilet’s broken.

The small building behind it was Tartu’s first video rental. All of it was pirated. But the patrons still like to come here. You get all manner of Tartite here. Drunken teenagers, inebriated Finns and hung-over office rats. I don’t know if they’re open at four in the morning—club time—but I would assume that, like in the West, that’s when they do most of their business. Honestly, it’s about time that there was competition for immigrant hot dogs at the gas station on your way home from the bars. (I'm referring to Statoil, a Norwegian gas station chain.)

It would be cool if the city set up an indoor space akin to the market in the form of a food court. You could sit there in winter after choosing from kebobs, stir-fried rice, langoshes, burritos and meat burgers. Somehow though I still suspect the meat burger would come out on top, and that’s no insult to the other foods mentioned.


Márton Barki said...

we know the owner guy pretty well already, cuz my wife during the pregnancy changed her everage eating style and wants at all junky food. So, the owner comes to us at least once a week, not only to eat but for a cooperative talk. He uses turky meat, already ready to grill (from Germany). He is a very simple person but has great soul, so we do like him a lot. The idea what you wrote about the multy-food-court great, so far that we already were talking aboud it with this guy and some other young clients from the city government (archtectural department). They would like to see us also in the city centre. It!s not only question of money, is also question of worth. (For who, and why, and why at all here in Estonia...) The pedestrian area inbetween the Kaubamaja and Poe street R.Kiosk would be just perfect. I have an ideal plan in my imagination, like a horizontal modern bulding split by different fastfood stores.

P.s.: and we are just longing for a weekend when we can paint our pavilon again, and no freeze and no rain... Absolutely other topic; i calculated so, that during the 4years living here I`have lost exactly 1 WHOLE year of sunshine (based on everage suny houres in Hungary vs Estonia). And it makes me think about my future born child. Do I have right to steal the chance from him or her (tomorrow turns out) to get more D-vitamine naturally...

soundwhiz said...

Thanks for this tip! I went there twice today. The burgers are the usual slabs of heated lifeform, but that's how the roadside burgers are in Estonia. The kebabs are very good though. I had one for lunch and then went and got some for dinner for the missus. I would never have found this place if it hadn't been for this review. I never go behind Vana Kaubamaja, save the sidewalk going to Bussijaam. But who turns their heads that direction?

Pete said...

Can't get pita. Boo-hoo. They should bake some.

vulturesign said...

My brother's wife used to make the best falafel I have ever tasted(better than NYC, or even the middle East)but she could only get the mix from Stockman's in Tallinn and now they've stopped carrying it. BTW I think good, strong, cabbage is preferable to wimpy, wilted, lettuce for a multitude of purposes including (but not limited to) kebabs, falafel, fish tacos, most other mexican dishes and many salads. Maybe I've been living here too long?

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