Burgers in Istanbul
After a bloody start to the New Year and a currency weakening by the day, Istanbullus needed some respite. That respite came in the form of a handsome butcher: Salt Bae.
At first, it didn’t occur to me that Salt Bae was Turkish. But upon closer inspection, I found he was none other than Nusret Gökçe, who runs a wildly successful chain of steakhouses called Nusr-et. A man with the word for beef in his name (et in Turkish), Nusret Gökçe is a butcher from Erzurum, in Turkey’s east, with a flair for the dramatic. His Instagram videos of massaging, cutting, shaping, rubbing, and sprinkling salt on meat have gone viral. But it was the salt shower seen around the world—over five million views on Instagram so far—that put him on the map and got him Bruno Mars’s attention.
But what about the meat? I wondered. Could it match the hype of a meme?
As you walk into Nusr-et, mood music and mood lighting set the tone for you walk to a wooden table. The all-male waiters sport thick mustaches, some of them groomed and curled at the tips. Our waiter mentioned that it was a requirement: “No mustache, no meat is the saying here.” We asked him if there had been an uptick in customers since Salt Bae caught on, and he nodded yes, of course. Right behind us, a table full of tourists had just been seated.
I like beef, and meat in general, but I could never put away a whole steak. So we opted for the smaller, cheaper burger option. We ordered the nusret burger and the lokum burger (lokum is the Turkish word for Turkish delight). When the burgers came out, our waiter cut them in two over a wooden board, precisely, plopping each type of burger on our plates. The lokum burger was soft, with thin cuts of beef dissolving in our mouths. The nusret burger, outfitted with caramelized onions, a strip of pastirma, melted cheddar, and a toasted bun, was by far the best burger I’ve had for the quality of the meat itself. Unlike most American burgers, it was simple.
Around me, I saw a woman in a niqab, a South Asian family, and another family speaking loud Persian. A waiter with an especially curly and thick mustache was doing the Salt Bae sprinkle over a plate of meat for the tourists next to us. They clapped, wowing, as the salt danced down his arm, down the tip of his elbow. It’s a comforting thought in these times: the story of how a Turkish butcher with a bit of creativity brought such disparate people together in one place for a meal.