The True Story Behind Portland's Secret Kebab
In mid-2011, things were going splendidly for Alparslan Yilmaz, a.k.a. the Turk. His operation Secret Kebab had charmed local eaters by selling fat lamb wraps in a semiclandestine fashion: orders via Twitter, text, or e-mail during the Turk’s erratic hours. Deliveries bore passing resemblance to a drug deal.
“We were ... leaning against the chain-link fence ... at 30th and Killingsworth,” a Secret Kebab customer wrote on Yelp. “I was ... fumbling with the wad of cash in my pocket and trying to anticipate what the delivery guy would look like.”
By most accounts, the kebabs were worth the intrigue. But the Turk was even better known for his inspired, fractured-English enthusiasm on Twitter: “BOOM BOOM!! Kebab delivery it is on!! The lamb is run and jump and back flips to you in #NWPDX!! Name adres telefon and how many?!” One newspaper called the Turk “a literary creation,” and noted that his alleged Turkish was as bad as his English, but no one seemed to care. Alparslan Yilmaz was well on his way to urban-legend status.
Meantime, the world of John J. Goddard, a 40-year-old chef and writer, was not quite so sunny. He’d lost his job and was bouncing between wobbly living situations. At one point, he ended up camping in a park and showering at his gym.
Goddard was, of course, the Turk.
A St. Louis native and career professional cook, Goddard landed in Portland in 2009 in unsuccessful pursuit of an old flame. He had also lived in Croatia twice, where he’d fallen hard for its anarchic culture of handmade food: “Everywhere you go, people are selling cured meat, honey, or wine they make themselves. No licenses. No regulation.” So when a Northwest Portland restaurant laid him off after the 2010 holidays, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
ONE NEWSPAPER CALLED THE TURK “A LITERARY CREATION,” BUT NO ONE SEEMED TO CARE. ALPARSLAN YILMAZ WAS WELL ON HIS WAY TO URBAN-LEGEND STATUS.
After one trip to Kitchen Kaboodle, he was soon crafting East Euro-style sausages and cured meats in his home kitchen. He’d pack his wares in a briefcase and hit Northwest bars to sell them. (In a blog post, he described himself as a “meat pirate.”) Goddard also launched a delivery-only bakery and served Balkan pop-up dinners at restaurants under the name Luka. And then Secret Kebab was born.
“I couldn’t keep all these concepts going,” Goddard says. “The Turk was the result of needing a figurehead.” He began tweeting as Alparslan Yilmaz, punctuating kebab updates with Dadaist riffs: “Now I am banana hasish for the teas!! HAÇA!!”
As orders began to trickle in, Goddard says, he cooked kebabs in a series of houses, each situation shakier than the last. At one point, he says, he walked up to an empty, foreclosed-upon house in Northeast Portland and opened the door. “The power was on, and I was home.” Eventually, Goddard says he abandoned the squat for a tent in woodsy Macleay Park. He showered at 24 Hour Fitness and cooked at the Pearl District’s KitchenCru, an incubator for start-up food businesses. “When people asked about Alparslan, I’d say he was an eccentric Turkish man who lived in the Northwest hills,” he says now.
Today, Goddard lives in Zagreb. This summer, he published a cookbook showcasing Croatia, one of Europe’s least-known culinary strongholds.
And the Turk? One recent tweet struck a note of mingled melancholy and hope: “Lamb will not return to Portland this year, but Lamb will soon cross the sea.”
John J. Goddard’s book Dalmatian Cooking and the Turk’s Lamb Goes in Town are available via adriaticpublishing.com.