SPICE-INFUSED and presented with several sauces, the iskender kebabat Sako's Mediterranean Cuisine, a Turkish restaurant in Reseda, sent me straight back to Istanbul's vibrant Beyoglu district, where the aroma of meat-scented smoke wafts through ancient cobblestone streets. Just off the tony boulevard Istiklal Caddesi, the area is packed with dozens of cafes and rotisserie specialists doling out the country's iconic doner kebab -- slices of meat stacked on a big skewer (similar to the Greek gyro and Arab shawarma) -- and its fancier cousin, the iskender kebab (a plated version).
Sako's version of the iskender kebab comes out of the kitchen on one of those retro iron steakhouse platters fitted onto a wooden board. But this hokey presentation doesn't detract from the drama of the seasoned ground beef sirloin sliced, wafer thin, from the spit, then piled high on the plate and lightly splashed with a sauce that tastes like fresh tomatoes. Squares of grilled pita absorb the meat and tomato juices. Around it a snowy moat of thick yogurt swirled with browned butter adds a zingy tang and creaminess that knocks the flavor of every bite out of the ballpark.
Sako's iskender kebab has all of the richness and none of the heaviness found in less skillfully prepared versions. If the kebab were the only great dish here, Sako's would be still worth a drive, but the modest menu offers a few more jewels. Take the içhli köfte. Called kibbeh maqli on Lebanese menus, it's one of those time-consuming treats usually left to dedicated grandmothers with patience and years of practice in hand-forming the mini football-shaped appetizers. A meatloaf-like paste made from a blend of pulverized cracked wheat and beef is patted around a mixture of seasoned ground beef and pine nuts to make a köfte, which is then deep fried. As with chocolate bonbons, you get a double taste experience as you bite through the savory shell to the juicy interior.
ANOTHER specialty, sigara börek -- seasoned feta inside a filo cylinder as thin as a cigarette -- is a savory pastry that's one of the Middle East's most challenging to prepare. Buttery, crispy, creamy, with a salty tang, the neat packet makes for such easy eating that nary a filo flake will land on your shirt front. Sako's is hardly grand. In fact, the high, trussed ceilings suggest a former life as a pancake house or coffee shop. Still, the soft gray walls hung with charming watercolor prints of scenes of Istanbul and the pristine double tablecloths lend a well-cared-for feel to the room.
Locating the restaurant, however, has given some would-be diners a certain amount of grief. It sits behind a hulking for-hire venue -- the Venetian Palace Gourmet Hall on Corbin Avenue -- and is blocked from view on its other side by a Del Taco drive-through on Vanowen Street. But once inside, you are embraced by Sako's homey comforts and pampered by its waitresses.
You'll probably recognize many items on the menu -- hummus, baba ghanouj, tzatziki -- because Turkish food, like that of Greece, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, was once tossed into the great melting pot of the Ottoman Empire. So an appetizer spread of mezes starts off every meal.
Bland though it may sound, fried eggplant is one of Sako's absolute must-tries. The delicate Asian variety of the vegetable, grilled to a toasty, creamy consistency, melds with the bright notes of its tomato-yogurt garnish.
Chiköfte, the Turkish answer to beef tartar, gets its ruddy color and gentle spiciness from Syrian Aleppo pepper, and, because the meat is blended with bulgur wheat, the effect is that of slightly spicy sausage meat.
Turkey's famous tripe soup, iskembe, is also here, and it's loaded with sweet braised garlic and amped up with a touch of vinegar. An amazing treatment of liver, cideri, is done popcorn-shrimp style: cut into bite-size squares, lightly floured, flash fried then tossed with parsley, translucent slivers of raw onion and ground sumac -- outstanding.
Of course there are kebabs, and the ground beef lula kebab with its mysterious spicing is delicious. But the Anatolian adana kebab laced with a touch of hot pepper has an extra subtle complexity. These entrées come with a large, excellent tomato salad that will be brought out with the meze.
THE TWO beautifully made desserts have that powerful sweetness typical in many Middle Eastern baked goods. An apple, simmered in syrup until it's as translucent as hard candy, comes topped with kymak, the Turkish version of crème fraîche. Ekmek kadaifi (Turkish bread pudding) is even sweeter and needs a good strong Turkish coffee for balance.
Have it after an iskender kebab; the combination will have you imagining you're in Beyoglu.
Sako's Mediterranean Cuisine Location: 6736 Corbin Ave., Reseda, (818) 342-8710. www.sakosmediterranean Price: Appetizers and salads: $1.30 to $7.50; entrees $8.50 to $16.50. Best dishes:Iskender kebab, fried eggplant, börek, içhli köfte, adanakebab. Details: Open Wednesday through Friday from 3:30 to 9 p.m. or until closing, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. or closing. Lot parking behind the restaurant. Visa and MasterCard.