Ergin Tek must get tired of saying, "It's not Genghis Khan, the Mongol invader. It's Gengiz Khan."
His Turkish restaurant is named for his father, Gengiz, and a khan is like a Turkish inn or place for caravans to stop along the Silk Road. Some of his customers already know this: He spent 12 years in a small storefront not far from MacDill Air Force Base. Many of his regulars, in fact, are military folks who have been stationed in the Middle East and developed a passion for kebabs, baba ghanouj and tabbouleh.
There were enough regulars that that 1,700-square-foot space, with its tiny kitchen and lack of designated parking, wasn't getting the job done. Tek started looking around a couple of years ago and in January made the move to a space on Bay to Bay Boulevard that was most recently Graffiti Junktion and before that Wings Gone Wild. I was skeptical about how the concept would play in this shambling party-hardy spot, but it works beautifully. Gengiz Khan has inherited a hodgepodge of a restaurant space, but it has a generous central bar and plenty of natural light.
Turkish food, which is every bit as Mediterranean as it is Middle Eastern, is attractive to look at, largely healthy and accessible, with lots of fresh greenery and simply grilled meats. In short, your kids are going to like it, there's plenty for vegetarians and even carbo-phobes, and it will assuage the jones of anyone who has spent time in the hummus zone, which extends for thousands of miles. Oh, and a full bar and plenty of shareables make it suitable for date night or friends night.
International Hummus Day is in fact May 13, so 'tis the season, but I'm going to say the place to start is more broadly with the Mediterranean dipping platter ($15), an oblong white tray with dips separated by low cucumber walls. There's simple strained yogurt, tahini-inflected hummus, a nutty roasted baba ghanouj, a cold eggplant stew like a Turkish ratatouille and taramasalata (a yogurt flavored by mild red roe). All of this is scoopable with warm, soft, blistery pita wedges, a generous appetizer for two people.
But it would be a shame to miss out on the salads, from the lemony shepherd salad ($9), a fine dice of tomato, cuke, peppers, onion and parsley, to the organic arugula salad ($9), huge and studded with toasted pine nuts, scallion, carrot, ripe tomato and radish.
In a couple of visits, service super solicitous both times, I lost focus and contemplated novelties. Sriracha cheese fries? Ground lamb wrapped in wheat bread and sliced sushi-style? And what would vegetarian moussaka be? It's a big menu, with an equally lengthy drink list with tropical cocktails, but the classics dominate. If you're in a group, aim for the meat lovers' kebab platter ($44 serves two to three, $85 serves four to six), a huge tray of rice over which grilled filet mignon, ground lamb, chicken breast, doner and ground chicken skewers have been arrayed, the juices flavoring the rice and accents of greens and a delicious shredded carrot salad lightening the load.
House-made falafel are more like flattened patties than the orbs you see at nearby Byblos, but they have nice crunch and flavor (these are chickpea, not fava or mixed pulses) and lend themselves to a shareable appetizer with a garlicky bit of hummus ($8) or as a dinner ($15) served with a side salad. And for dessert, the house baklava, three to an order ($6), are decadent and buttery, especially enjoyable with a kick-in-the-pants Turkish coffee ($3). On both of my visits the house-made kunefe was unavailable, a shame because it's my favorite Middle Eastern dessert, the Turkish version a raw milk cheese base topped with a fright wig of shredded wheat, drizzled with simple syrup and baked ($8).
No matter, I'll go back until they have it. I don't know about Tek's father Gengiz, but that other Genghis Khan was nothing if not persistent.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.