Alternative Istanbul – Balik Ekmek (Fish Sandwich) Vendors

Sometimes my sole goal in a city is to experience one taste that I’ve craved from a previous visit.  On a recent visit to Istanbul, that was balik ekmek.  I’d previously tried the famous fish sandwich sold under the Galata Bridge (and in other spots around Istanbul which is where I had my first taste of one) and couldn’t get the memory of that taste out of my head.  I knew that on a recent visit the number one activity for me was heading to the famous bridge to seek out a place to have one.

As luck would have it, when we docked in Istanbul on the recent Grand Mediterranean adventure, that was the same day I woke up to a somewhat urgent email on a work-related matter.  I could have shrugged it off for later (and might have postponed it a few hours if I had an organized tour planned) but I decided to take advantage of the faster internet when the ship emptied out for the morning.  I let my friend head off to do her own thing and stayed behind to tackle the issue.

Fortunately by lunchtime, my issue was resolved and my stomach was growling.  I decided to head out on a quest to obtain my fish sandwich!

It was an easy adventure from the port.  I first walked from the cruise port to the tram (there are stations located a couple blocks to the right of the port entrance or a few blocks to the left) and bought my token.  I rode the tram to the Galata stop (right before the bridge) and then crossed the street to the bridge side.

I knew from my research that there would likely be a few options – small boats docked near the mouth of the bridge on the western side with grills attached to the back, small restaurants with tables offering sandwiches prepared in the kitchen, or street vendors selling them on portable grills.  I stumbled upon the latter first and decided to take my chances!

You first pay for your sandwich and then they grill and prepare it for you.  I handed over my 8 lira (about $3.20) to one gentleman taking orders and watched as the other placed a fish filet on the charcoal grill.

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Questionably legal street vendor selling grilled fish sandwiches to the brave.

Then suddenly the one taking money saw something he didn’t like.  He grabbed the condiments and held them high.  His partner picked up the grill and off they ran, one hiding behind a building, the other hiding in a fenced lot.  The grill was still fired up and he still tended it while the other peeked around the corner to see if the coast was clear.

A couple minutes later, the two returned to their perch as normal.  The grill tender carefully turned fish on the grill, gently scrapping off the charred skin to reveal a tender filet.  He toasted sliced baguette style rolls on the grill and then at the perfect moment, scooped the filet up, tucked it in the bread, topped it with tomato, onion, and lettuce, a squirt of lemon juice, and a dash of olive oil.

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Best (and certainly cheapest) fish sandwich I’ve ever tried.

I took my sandwich, a delicious treat wrapped in paper and found a on a curb nearby to eat and watch the action.  The same Keystone Cops routine played out three more times while I was sitting there so my 8 lira bought me not only a sandwich but a show as well.

I know I could have had the same sandwich from a slightly more legal vendor, but it might have cost a few lira more and didn’t carry with it the street food credibility.  This was honestly the best fish sandwich I’ve ever had.  It was much better than I remember the restaurant version being a few years ago and cheaper than I remember it as well.  The only thing that would have made it better would have been a cold beer to accompany it, something I wasn’t going to obtain from a parking lot vendor.

The scenery was interesting around me… on one side I had a parking lot (pictured below) and on the other, a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus River and the Galata Bridge.  Spectacular people watching for sure!

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“Spectacular” non-Bosphorus view from my parking lot perch.

My next stop after this was the Spice Market.  I wanted to wander a bit and bring back some food stuffs.  It was blisteringly hot however and I didn’t bring sunscreen with me when I ventured out, so I limited my time to the shade.

On my last trip to Istanbul, I had purchased new dishes – not the cheap pottery that abounds in the market but gorgeous hand-painted dishware that was fired and sealed (and even dishwasher safe) – as well as a kilm rug for my media room.  I knew that if tempted by the Grand Bazaar again I would likely repeat my home wares shopping spree (I’ve had my eye on serving pieces and a glass lamp) so I stayed far away from temptation knowing that I didn’t have room in my bags.

The Spice Market is less trafficked than the Grand Bazaar and thus has a slightly more local feel in my opinion.  The open air lane is filled with food and sundry vendors (think old school grocery store with stalls selling food and stalls selling household products like cleaning supplies and hardware).

The heat was getting the better of me and I was unimpressed with any of the vendors today for things I wanted to pick up (sweets or mixed spices) so I decided to call it a day.

On my way back, I stumbled across Hafiz Mustafa, a famous dessert restaurant, which is somewhat like the Laduree of Istanbul.  I decided to pick up a box of Turkish delight, a box of freshly baked baklava, and a large box of jelly candies (somewhat like fruit slices I’m accustomed to here in the US but richer in flavor).  My haul set me back only 50 lira (about $20) so it was quite the bargain.  I’m not a huge fan of Turkish delight so I brought it home to share with friends and family but the baklava and jellies I’ve hoarded for my own enjoyment.

Delighted with my foodie adventures, I headed back to the ship on the tram, but not before taking in the call to prayer, one of my favorite delights about visiting a Muslim country (even without a mosque visit this time around).

I picked up a simit (Turkish pretzel) to nibble on as I made my way home, belly full from my quick adventure in Istanbul.

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