BALLSTON SPA — We have Dunkin’ Donuts to thank for the babaganoush.
Rauf Ziya was driving through Ballston Spa one summer day in 2013 when he stopped for coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Doubleday Avenue.
“I saw the sign ‘for lease’ on the space next door,” he said. He looked in the window. It was perfect.
He wasn’t thinking of opening a restaurant at the time, even though Instanblu in Saratoga Springs, where he was chef, was closing. He thought, “Let me give it a shot.”
Then Ziya did what he’s done most of his life: He started cooking. Alaturco Mediterranean Grill opened in August 2014.
Ziya owns the restaurant with his wife, Nurgul. He runs the kitchen, she takes care of the paperwork and front of the house. Their 9-year-old daughter, Ikra, helps in the kitchen and the dining room.
There were other restaurants before Alaturco, but let’s go back to when Ziya and his family arrived in the United States, and to the story about how they got here from Turkey. Ziya’s father worked at Incirlik Air base in Adana, Turkey, an important strategic location for the United States Air Force. It’s a large base, with a complement of about 5,000 airmen.
Ziya’s father must have made a good impression on the American soldiers he befriended there. “There were problems inside the country,” he told me, referring to the political violence of the late 1970s. It was safer for the family to move here, said the American friends, who eventually sponsored his family. The family qualified for a refugee visa and on March 6, 1979, arrived and settled in Brooklyn.
“I didn’t speak a word of English,” Ziya said. He was 17, and went right to work in a pizzeria. His easy manner and quick smile no doubt helped him as he learned the language on the job.
ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Owner of Alaturco Mediterranean Grill Rauf Ziya prepares a mixed grill dish in the kitchen at their restaurant on Milton Ave in Ballston Spa on Thursday, February 6, 2020.
Ziya learned to cook from his mother. “We all knew how to cook,” he said of his four brothers and sisters. “I’m the only kid who stayed in the business,” he added, looking around his tidy, persimmon-painted dining room across to the open kitchen, where two younger cousins were getting ready for the dinner service. “I enjoy being in the kitchen,” he said, before pausing. “It’s in you.”
Shortly after the family arrived in Brooklyn, his mother observed, “There is no Turkish restaurant here.” So in 1980 they opened Adana Kebab House.
“We used her recipes. The same recipes, the same ingredients,” he told me. He still uses them today, “Mostly the same,” he decided.
Ziya is proud of the fact that everything in his restaurant is made in-house.
“Absolutely from scratch, baklava, all the desserts,” he said. He uses nothing ready-made. He does all his own shopping for Alaturco, and in the summertime shops at local farms and the Saratoga farmers’ market, where Alaturco is a vendor. “The only way to do it is the right way.”
Lamb, the basic meat of the Turkish kitchen, is prepared by Ziya in the traditional manner: with skewers and over charcoal. It is served marinated, as minced meat kebabs, stewed or grilled. There are seasoned grilled dishes of chicken and beef as well as seafood and vegetarian ones, all served with salad, seasoned rice and bulgar wheat, and prepared the time-honored way using his mother’s recipes.
Ziya makes falafel, tabouli, hummus, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves and yogurt-like labneh spread. For dessert, there is rice pudding, sweet custard or the traditional baklava.
There were many stops along the way to Ballston Spa. Ziya rattled them off. After Brooklyn, he worked at a restaurant in Lake Hiawatha, N.J., then headed west to California, to Lido Isle in Newport Beach. In Florida, he cooked at Anatolia Mediterranean Grill in Boca Raton, then West Palm Beach at Anatolia Nights. Later came Istanblu in Saratoga — and that fateful stop at Dunkin Donuts.
He likes it here.
ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Interior of Alaturco Mediterranean Grill on Milton Ave in Ballston Spa on Thursday, February 6, 2020.
“In Saratoga, people are from everywhere,” he observed, although “wintertime is tough,” he admitted, looking out the window to snowy, sloppy Doubleday Avenue. “Summertime is better,” with the farmers’ market and in July, the Saratoga County Fair.
The family lives a few blocks from the restaurant in Ballston Spa. “It’s a nice town, quiet. Low crime,” he said. They are happy with the public school district and he works close to home. “I choose to live near my restaurant, always.” he said.
He’s also closer to other family members and to his mother, now 85, who live in New Jersey. He visits them regularly.
Alaturco brings Mediterranean food to festivals around the region, including the Lake George Oktoberfest, the Saratoga Giant Pumpkinfest and the Saratoga International Flavor Festival. “It helps to advertise the business,” he said. In summer, his family helps out at the farmers’ markets in Saratoga, Ballston Spa and Brant Lake. “It’s a good way of introducing the food,” he said. During these times, Ziya is back at the restaurant. “I stay in the kitchen,” he said.
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When I visited, Ziya looked around the dining room at all the work he did himself to convert the former Boost Mobile telephone store into a smart, comfortable restaurant. In the center of one wall beyond the white-covered tables is a large, framed black-and-white photo of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first president. Alongside are colorful photos of Turkey’s historic cities, with crystal clear blue skies and bright sunshine.
Ikra, who refers to Alaturco as “my restaurant,” already helps, working in the kitchen and carrying dishes in the dining room. “She’s going to be a better chef than I am,” her father said.
Ziya has seen a lot of the country. “No more moves. No more adventures,” he said. Then he paused, and qualified: “You never know.”