Once you’re past the witches and goblins, Salem’s Paprika Grill offers Turkish food made with care
Witches and goblins are out in full force in Salem this month, some so scary that when a dad and his toddler pose for a selfie beside one particularly gory-looking vampire, the little girl shrieks with fear at the top of her lungs. The city is full of wailing, frightened kids and their eager parents.
Amid this chaos, down an alley where the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers is located, sits Paprika Grill, a 12-seat spot serving remarkably good Turkish cuisine. An outdoor garden seats 20 more when it’s mild enough, but the place is essentially take-out and delivery.
Owner Emrah Arslan, 30, had set up shop in Gloucester in 2016 but he found the winters there too quiet, so he moved the business to Salem, closer to where he lives. “Salem is the middle of everything,” he says. At least during trick-or-treat season.
Turkish food is a labor-intensive cuisine with many rice and bulgur dishes, stuffed vegetables and fruits, eggplant in every imaginable way, bean soups, a host of fried croquette-like rounds, and pastries based on phyllo dough, some with the highly aromatic rose water. All of it, wherever you go in Turkey, is prepared carefully and proudly. Cooks turn the smallest gestures — slicing meat off the tall vertical spits and slipping it onto rounds of bread — into an art form.
Arslan is not different from the cooks in his homeland, but he’s solo here and preparing a streamlined menu that includes seven main dishes, most of them kebabs, that you can get one of three ways — in a bowl of rice, rolled up a wrap, or tucked into pita. The bowls are a fine way to eat his highly seasoned meat, particularly kofte, juicy ground beef meatballs that you can top with hummus, pickled red cabbage, and shredded carrot.
Everything here is homemade except the bread. He’s whirring his own smooth, garlicky hummus, cumin-scented baba ghanoush that begins with eggplant on charcoals, falafel that he makes to order every single time, so they maintain their soft insides and crunchy exteriors. Those falafel are much bigger than any others you’ve probably ordered because Arslan thinks that his customers want them that way. When people ask him what to get, he suggests the falafel – along with doner kebab, chicken carved from a spit, and lamb Adana kebab, ground lamb with red peppers. “Once they try it, they stick with it,” he says.
His traditional Turkish red lentil soup deserves a better bowl than its paper cup, and an appetizer on the short menu, “eggplant with sauce,” needs some PR. Arslan tells me later on the phone that at home the name for this dish is “shakshuka” (shakshuka is also a spicy North African tomato sauce with eggs). Paprika’s version is made with roasted eggplant cubes, tomato sauce, red and green bell peppers, and onions. It has a jammy quality that is fabulous with pita (all the bread you get here has been warmed).
Those spooked kids will calm right down with a menu of their own: meatball with rice or chicken shish kebab with rice (or chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks).
Or a bowl of rice pudding that’s nothing but the grains in a cool, sweet, milky pool of sauce, thickened slightly with cornstarch. It will put the bloody zombies in the rear-view mirror. Until you head back down the alley. 2 Liberty St., Salem, 978-551-8186, www.face