MezzeMe Teaches Austin About Turkish Food

Scratch-made kitchen builds on family recipes handed down

The Forever Falafel plate with hummus and Crazy Grains (Photos courtesy of MezzeMe)

When Mahmud "Moody" Ugur wanted to open a Turkish restaurant in Austin based on the recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother in his hometown just south of Istanbul, he was told the concept would not work if he had "Turkish" in the title.

"It was shocking at the beginning. Everyone wanted to call it Greek or Mediterranean. We went with Mediterranean at first, but I wanted to stay true and I changed it after a year," Ugur says.

Overcoming the struggle of educating others about Turkish food and flavors was one of the biggest challenges Ugur identified on his path to opening MezzeMe Turkish Kitchen. "Many think it is all about gyros and falafel, but it is actually about fresh foods with simple ingredients," he explains. "We make most of our items with only four or five ingredients and don't overpower them with spices. The more eastern you travel in Turkey the more spices they use – historically it was to preserve foods in the heat – but the western region where I am from uses minimal spices to let the vegetables shine and not cover them up. Adana is spicy, Istanbul is not spicy."

Ugur came to Austin more than 20 years ago to attend Huston-Tillotson University. As a student, he had several roommates who did not know how to cook. By default, he was soon cooking for himself and everyone else. Moving to a new country, he was able to re-create the tastes in his own kitchen that were reminiscent of his childhood home by the seaside. Food was an important part of his family life and culture. He recalls getting together with relatives to put eggplants on the grill for baba ghanoush and pick vegetables straight from the garden for dinner. Ugur says eating at home with family was the standard, with restaurants a rare luxury. Though an education is what originally brought Ugur to Austin, it was family that brought him back. He met his wife of 17 years in Texas and though they moved together to Turkey to live for several years, they moved back with their two children to start MezzeMe.

Mahmoud "Moody" Ugur (l) and Joel Zamora

General Manager Joel Zamora has been by Ugur's side since MezzeMe opened its doors. Ugur describes him as being like a brother, and when chatting with the two of them, it is clear that they have a strong shared vision about quality, consistency, and the value of treating people well. When asked what he considered his biggest success, Ugar is quick to answer: "Finding Joel." He continues, "Joel always picks me up, I try to pick him up, too. He is a good chef and believes in making everything fresh."

"Moody's biggest success is that he has educated so many in the Austin community about what Turkish food is," says Zamora. He also attributes what they have at MezzeMe to Ugur's understanding of both Turkish food and American palates.

When it comes to what makes MezzeMe work, both Ugur and Zamora cite consistency. They took the time and care to convert traditional family recipes into written recipes. Though many of the chefs in the kitchen are Turkish and know what dishes should taste like, they emphasize consistency of quality, so they have standardized the processes to bring those results.

MezzeMe has seen steady growth in the eight years it has been open. In addition to the many customers living and working near MezzeMe's location in the Triangle, MezzeMe serves many students and members of Austin's growing Turkish community. For many it is a rare taste of home. Austin has a few spots that focus on Turkish-style kebabs, such as Kebabalicious and California-based chain the Kebab Shop. Troy ATX on Mesa Drive is a Turkish and Greek restaurant, bringing more variety to Austin's expanding Turkish food offerings.

MezzeMe means "my appetizer," and it is a nod to Ugur's childhood habit of sneaking into his grandmother's kitchen as she cooked and taking little samples as his appetizers. (The name is easily confused with Mezze Cafe, the recently opened South Austin Mediterranean grill and hookah lounge, but the two businesses are unrelated.)

The Beauty and the Beets

There are many different types of appetizers on MezzeMe's menu, but a can't-miss standard Turkish staple is the feta cheese and olives in extra-virgin olive oil. The ezme, or Turkish salsa, has finely chopped tomato, parsley, onion, pomegranate molasses, red pepper paste, cucumber, and spring vegetables that give a fresh addition to many entrées. The zucchini walnut yogurt made with fresh dill and savory baked cheese pie (borek) is a safe option for those new to Turkish food. It is baked with a blend of white cheeses that have a subtle saltiness.

The soups offered are red lentil and lemon chicken. While you cannot go wrong with any of the salads on the menu, the Beauty and the Beets combines dried apricots, goat cheese, and a balsamic reduction, bringing together very unique sweet and savory flavors.

Turkey is known for its flatbread offerings and MezzeMe has several, with the bread baked fresh in-house daily. Za'atar is a blend of thyme and other spices that are baked onto flatbread; other offerings include cheese, sausage, pastirma, and chicken. The pastirma is served dramatically on a long cutting board, and the spiced-meat-filled lahmacun comes on a round cutting board with fresh tomatoes, red onions, and cilantro. The entrée options are varied, but consistently include an exceptionally tender protein; the meats are freshly ground daily. From the "Wraps and Pita Pockets" portion of the menu, the doner kebab is spiced lamb cooked on a spit and served in slices, similar to gyro. The Adana is a minced meat kebab named after the fifth-largest city of Turkey, a southeastern province where more spices are generally used in cooking. Kofte is a tender meatball ground in-house. These can be served as a sandwich in a pita or wrap, or as an entrée with rice or a quinoa/lentil/rice combination called "Crazy Grain."

The pistachio baklava is well-balanced, as are the assortment of other pastries available. A baked rice pudding called sutlac has an almost custardlike texture and traditional flavor. MezzeMe also offers a Turkish version of kunefe (see "A Journey Through Austin's Knafeh Offerings With My Arab Father," Food, June 10), as well as a variety of baklava imported from Turkey. Paired with hot Turkish tea, any of these desserts put a fine point on a meal at MezzeMe and alone are worth a visit to this restaurant that brings a little more flavor to Austin.

The road has not always been smooth, however. MezzeMe originally started as a Chipotle-style concept with build-your-own items, but the challenge of the pandemic necessitated adaptations. "Locals really came through during the pandemic," says Ugur, citing a successful pivot to plated items in response to the change in customer needs. A lunch rush used to happen routinely between 11am and 2pm, but with fewer office workers visiting regularly, lunch is no longer predictable. In response to what customers said they would like to see, the restaurant has started a new soup-and-sandwich lunch combo and is considering a traditional Turkish breakfast offering pending staffing. Additionally, because everything is more expensive now, the fresh nature of the menu has led to the difficult decision to raise prices across the menu. Despite all these challenges, MezzeMe is committed to continuing to provide scratch-made Turkish food in Austin, always seeking the right balance between traditional foods and customer needs.

MezzeMe Turkish Kitchen

4700 W. Guadalupe #9
Daily, 11am-10pm

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MezzeMe, Mahmud Ugur, Moody Ugur, Joel Zamora, Turkish cusiine

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