A Turkish Feast at the Little Country Diner
A Turkish Feast at the Little Country Diner
Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., April 6, 2012
Little Country Diner22000 Highway 71 W., Spicewood 512/264-2926
Sunday-Monday, 8am-4pm; Wednesday-Saturday, 8am-8pm; closed Tuesdays
Stepping into Spicewood's Little Country Diner is like being transported into a sunny little oasis. The first thing to strike you is the diminutive owner, Remzi Tireng. He is a ball of sunshine with a huge smile and a "you are my family" attitude. His wife, Guljan, prepares everything by herself, from scratch. Back in Turkey, her father had a farm where her mother had to feed 120 workers per day. Guljan (pronounced "GOOL-jan") grew to appreciate cleanliness, healthy foods, and distinct flavors, but she didn't aim to be a chef. In their home town of Adana, she owned a textile shop. When Remzi ("REM-zee") moved to the U.S. for a job in Spicewood, she wanted to be with him. Although she spoke no English, she went to the then-owner of the Little Country Diner and offered to work for free. She was just hoping to pick up some skills and learn a little English. She was a fast student at both.
Adana is a sophisticated city of 3 million people sitting close to the Mediterranean Sea, so the move to Spicewood was something of a culture shock. Plus, Guljan has always been shy about her English (even though it is just fine). Since taking over, both Guljan and Remzi have devoted all their time to this little restaurant. It is only closed one day a week, and they often work even then. For instance, "I know American people like cleanliness," says Remzi. "So we work, sometimes until midnight, to make the place always very clean." And it is spotless. They are dedicated to getting the details right. Imagine this in a low-cost diner: I asked the secret to Guljan's incredible Fried Catfish ($9.45). "I take every bit of the bad-tasting fat and skin off by hand," she says with a drill sergeant's authority. "And I do it just when I am preparing it. There is no precut anything in my kitchen. I cut everything myself by hand. I make my own sauces and salad dressings. I can't look you in the face if I serve you bad food."
So by now, you know more of their story than we did when we were sitting in the diner's parking lot during last September's Spicewood wildfires. My family had been evacuated from our home and we were sitting there watching our house, hoping not to see it catch on fire. Remzi came out. The restaurant was closed, but like a good Samaritan, he gave us some water and offered to let us sit inside. They asked if we wanted some food. I noticed an appetizer that sounded comforting: hummus and toasted pita ($3.95). It was incredible. Guljan made a rare appearance out of the kitchen. I asked if she would ever be willing to make us a dinner of her favorite traditional Turkish food. She was excited to have the chance to make something other than their normal burgers and chicken-fried steaks, so we scheduled it immediately. Negotiating the dinner was simple: She needed five days' notice, a minimum of 10 people, and it would cost between $15 and $20 per person. She needed the time to do the shopping since she'd have to go to Austin for most of the ingredients and she works in the kitchen six days a week. And the price, well, it is criminally low in my opinion.
When we arrived, the Tirengs had set a nice table for us. We started with a cucumber salad with tangy feta offset by lovely lemon aromas. Guljan's hummus is a work of art, rich with olive oil and spices that are delicate and fragrant. The city of Adana is as well known for kebabs as the Hill Country is for barbecue, and Guljan's chicken kebabs were classic. One of the most popular dishes around the table was Sigora Boreigt. She started with a Turkish filo dough called Üçgen Yufka, stuffed it with goat cheese, fried onions, and parsley, and then rolled and fried the concoction so that is was delicate and crispy. But the winner of the night was Manti, a small ravioli stuffed with beef and onions, then covered with mashed garlic and yogurt and topped with dried mint and crushed pepper. Before tip, the bill came out to $20 a person. All I wished for was some Turkish dessert.
The Little Country Diner's Turkish food is exotic, but it's not bizarre or intimidating. Instead, it is aromatic and appealing. And of course, there's always its regular menu well-loved by folks in Spicewood. Breakfast is available all day and the country breakfast ($6.75) with a side of biscuits and gravy ($3.25) is heavenly. Locals adore the juicy burgers ($7.50 for a half-pounder with exceptional battered fries) or chicken-fried steak ($9.45). No matter what you choose, you will also get Remzi's sunny disposition, something guaranteed to improve your day. But if you've ever been remotely curious about the home cooking of another country, the Tireng family provides an ideal window into the Turkish kitchen.