I ate my first lahmacun in Kadıköy in January of 2014. It was one of my first days studying abroad in Turkey, and along with a few of my classmates, we somehow managed to tell the servers using zero Turkish words that we wanted to order the lahmacun "combo" meal, which included 2 lahmacun, 1 plastic cup of ayran, and a tiny clear box of wilted salad and a lemon wedge- all for 4 Turkish lira (~$2). Together we all sat in our hotel, eating our lahmacun out of paper wrappings and plastic bags. I thought it was one of the best things I had ever eaten.
After spending more time in Turkey, I came to realize that that "amazing" lahmacun was actually not so amazing (although I still look back fondly on those first few days in Turkey). I've eaten more than my fair share of lahmacun, so I am writing this post to help out anyone who might not be as lucky as I was to be able to spend multiple years in Istanbul in search of the best one. Before beginning my own search, I read multiple news articles and blog posts on the topic (from both Turkish and international sources), and tracked down the top places to see if they really lived up to their standards. Many people have named Borsam and Halil (both in Kadiköy) as the best, but after trying them both, I was not as impressed as I was by the places I have included below:
In the end, I was able to come up with what I believe are the best lahmacun in Istanbul. And while I highly recommend trying to get your hands on these ones, if you end up eating a weird lahmacun combo meal from a somewhat sketchy source, I am definitely not in a position to judge!
If you want to eat lahmacun as your main course...
Çiya in Kadıköy is hands down my personal favorite. In fact, it served as a benchmark during my entire year of trying to find the best lahmacun; almost every time I tried a new lahmacun place, I would ask myself "is this better than Çiya?" and the answer was always no. I tried to fight against it at first because I know this restaurant is already famous, but there is very good reason for that. I believe they do everything right here: a perfect ratio of dough to meat mixture, a fresh, crispy crust that retains chewiness, plenty of fresh parsley and lemon, with deliciously creamy homemade ayran to drink it all down with.
Suggested order: 2 spicy lahmacun (acılı lahmacun) with a glass of homemade ayran (açık ayran)
If you want to enjoy lahmacun as an appetizer along with mezes, rakı, and kebabs...
Şanda Tiryaki in Arnavutköy is the place to go. Their miniature lahmacun (aka fındık lahmacun) come as an appetizer, but you'll be wishing you could eat them as a meal on their own. I think the secret to their lahmacun is actually in their kebabs. This place has some of the finest quality kebabs in the city, and that same meat is used in their lahmacun. The second you bite into it, you can taste a difference. They also use a lot of fresh vegetables in the lahmacun (as opposed to being heavy on the tomato/pepper paste), which gives the lahmacun a lighter flavor. Another important factor is that the lahmacun come to the tabling piping hot. When it comes to lahmacun, the faster the service, the better. Even lahmacun that has been sitting on a plate waiting to be delivered for as little as a minute or two begins to quickly cool down. On another note, make sure you leave room for dessert while you are here- the katmer is actually to die for.
Suggested order: everything on the menu (mezes, lahmacun, kebabs, dessert- just go for it and enjoy your unobstructed Bosphorus view from the deck- you only live once anyway)
If you're interested in a slightly healthier version (nutrition is my profession after all)...
Köşebaşı offers a whole wheat lahmacun!!! And I am not just including them on here for the fact that they have whole wheat dough. Köşebaşı is a famous high-end kebab chain that has a reputation for high quality food, and they have multiple locations around Istanbul (and the world). I love that they offer whole wheat lahmacun as a healthier option, and the nutty flavor of the whole grains just makes the whole thing taste even better.
If you're vegetarian or vegan but don't want to miss out on lahmacun...
Datlı Maya has vegetarian and vegan lahmacun that are so delicious. Rather than using meat substitutes, they have come up with ingenious vegetable combinations (like beet and Jerusalem artichoke puree) to create an exciting new plays on lahmacun. Even if you eat meat, I would suggest trying these out some time!
Below are just a few pictures of the many lahmacun I ate to find the best one (from left to right: Nakkaş Kebabı, Borsam, my first ever lahmacun with weird salad on top, Çiya (the winner, although not the best photo) with a side of içli köfte.