For more than 600 years, the Ottoman Empire ruled vast areas of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, including Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Islam spread throughout the region—and so did the cuisine.
“When the Ottomans expanded, they took their chefs with them and mixed in what was available in the local area,” explains John Tekman, who with his wife, Semra, owns Semra’s Mediterranean Grill in Rehoboth Beach. “Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, Greek—we have the same roots.”
As a result, you’ll find kebabs, baklava, hummus, stuffed grape leaves and rice pilaf in multiple countries. But the same dish might taste differently. “It’s like barbecue and chili,” says Bob Yesbek. “It’s different everywhere you go.”
The radio host and food writer—known as the Rehoboth Foodie—knows more than a little about Southern and Middle Eastern cuisine. His mother was a Texan, and his father’s parents emigrated from Lebanon.
“My father had eight sisters—all of whom cook Middle Eastern food—but they didn’t like my mother because she could cook it so well,” he confides. “Everyone preferred hers, which caused friction at family reunions.”
Yesbek can now get his fill at several area restaurants, some of which are devoted to the sultans’ favorites.
Located in Stoney Lonen’s old space on Second Street, Aroma opened in time for the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival, but owner Mustafa Murat “Mike” Tan persevered. Born in Turkey, the restaurateur grew up 20 minutes from the Marmara Sea. So, expect some seafood options. For instance, branzino is served whole or filleted.
Yesbek recommends the Aroma Mix, a medley of house-made dips including hummus, baba ghanoush, sautéed eggplant and tabbouleh. “It’s meant for the table, but I’ve ordered it for myself,” he says.
Another of his favorites, the Adana kebab, is ground chicken packed with Turkish spices and shaped around a skewer for the charcoal grill.
Aroma also has another attraction: Yuri Ustamenko, whose entertaining barside manner and cocktail creations are known around town, Yesbek says.
208 Second St., Rehoboth Beach; 212-2488; aromarb.com
The newest Middle Eastern restaurant is a quick-casual concept on Route 1 between Lewes and Rehoboth. At Kabab Falafel Addiction, customers order at the counter and pick up the meal when it’s ready.
But there are no shortcuts, maintains owner Rafat Mardawi. “The food we do is different, and we do everything from scratch,” he says. “We start with dried chickpeas for the falafels. I import spices from Jordan and bring back 100% organic olive oil from the mountains near Jerusalem. Some of the trees are over 1,000 years old.”
Mardawi is thrilled with the customers’ positive response. Since opening May 12, he doubled his expectations. While he’s still finding his footing, don’t be surprised if you see a second location. Within two months of opening, Mardawi received more than 300 requests to open a franchise in another area.
19470 Coastal Highway, Unit 15, Rehoboth Beach; 226-1303; facebook.com/KFADDICTION/menu/
For a gyro fix, head close to the beach, where Semra’s has a takeout window that faces the sidewalk. Showcased in the window, the meat is prepared and stacked on the spit right on the spot. “It’s different than the premixed stuff from big distributors,” Tekman maintains.
Semra Tekman was born in Turkey, and she uses family recipes to make traditional dishes like tzatziki, a salted yogurt and cucumber dip or sauce. The best place to enjoy her food is in the dining room hidden from the entrance. The portions are substantial. “She cooks homestyle—it’s what she knows,” Tekman says.
Yesbek often orders Iskender, a dish named for Alexander the Great. Thinly sliced gyro meat is piled on a pita with a tomato-and-pepper marinara sauce, yogurt and roasted pepper. “It looks like it should taste Italian, but it doesn’t—it is Turkish all the way,” Yesbek says.His favorite, however, is a gyro cheesesteak made with marinated steak that’s liberally laced with Turkish flavors. “I’m addicted to this,” he confesses.
Semra’s took a risk when it opened in 2012 near french fry vendors and ice cream shops, but the restaurant has built up a clientele. “We have a variety of customers, from vegans to lamb lovers,” Tekman says.
However, many customers gravitate toward the gyro “because it’s one thing that just about everybody knows,” Tekman says.
19 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach; 226-4976; semrasmediterranean.com
Some restaurants don’t specialize in Middle Eastern cuisine but do have some outstanding versions of traditional dishes.
The Greek salad at Porto Pizza & Grill has a stellar dressing, Yesbek says.
33168 Main St., Dagsboro; 732-1122; portopizzaandgrill.com
The rice pudding at Pete’s Steak Shop, especially if you pair it with a chicken cheesesteak. (The chicken is marinated in Greek seasonings, Yesbek says.)
19287 Miller Road, Rehoboth Beach; 226-3000; petessteakshop.com
The spinach pie at Sunny Bay Café, which also offers gyro sandwiches and chicken or pork souvlaki sandwiches.
236 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach; 567-2344; sunnybaycaferb.com
The gyro at Goolee’s Grille, served with fried onions for a change.
11 S. First St., Rehoboth Beach; 227-7653; gooleesgrille.com