From its tidy and generic exterior, the Queen Village Food Market at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets appears to be a typical Philly corner store for morning coffee, breakfast sandwiches and hoagies made with local Dietz & Watson meats.
Many in the neighborhood, however, know this Queen Village standby by its other unofficial name: the Turkish Market. That’s because owner John Atalan, 40, a trained mechanical engineer from Turkey who moved to the United States to study business, launched this market in 2006 as a proud paradise of ingredients inspired by home.
There are imported spices like tangy sumac and three kinds of Turkish crushed pepper — smoky Urfa, black Isot, red Pul Biber Aleppo (”just flakes, no seeds!”). There are Turkish teas and finely ground coffee from a 150-year-old roaster, Mehmet Efendi, that predates the fall of the Ottoman Empire. There are cumin-scented sujuk sausages in the fridge, and a freezer section stocked with manti dumplings made by Turkish women in Clifton, N.J., as well as lahmacun pizzas. The distinctive Turkish-style ice creams from Lezza in Belgium deliver the extra richness of goat’s milk and the traditionally stretchy texture that comes from the addition of the salep orchid root powder.
Why such a unremarkable name for such a distinctive market?
“When I came for school and opened the market, I didn’t want to put any Turkish name on it because I really wanted to be a part of this country, a part of this town — and I think it fits,” says Atalan.
Then again, with natural foods powerhouses Whole Foods and Essene Market just blocks away, Atalan also knew he needed to provide something different. The dairy case alone is worth a visit, with a selection of cheeses, yogurts, and products from the Mediterranean and Balkans that is hard to find outside the vast Russian markets of Northeast Philly such as Bell’s and NetCost.
Of the 100-plus cheeses in the market’s case, more than 60 are made in the Turkish style, from brined “white cheese” (beyaz peynir) used for breakfast and baking, to creamy labneh, and a tangy 90-day aged sheep’s milk kashkaval from Bulgaria. (I melted the latter over Metropolitan Bakery levain sourdough for an epic cheese toast.)
The real treasure here, though, is Atalan’s vast selection of feta cheese, at 28 varieties and counting, made from cow, sheep, or goat’s milk, and hailing from multiple countries. I’ve traditionally gone for Bulgarian fetas, but the sheep’s milk feta from Gazi was especially impressive, both in its excellent quality and its complicated international provenance, with milk from French sheep and fabricated in the Netherlands for a Stuttgart-based company with a Turkish name (which translates to “fighter”) founded by a German of Spanish descent.
The corporate backstory may be convoluted, but this feta is stellar nonetheless. At 50% butterfat, it has a soft, creamy richness that holds its shape when cut and a well-seasoned but restrained brine bath that allows the bold sheep’s milk flavor to shine through. At $21.99 for 800 grams of cheese (about 1.75 pounds), it’s also a great value for a feta that I’ve been devouring straight from its tall tin — all the while using it in every cucumber salad, omelet, and future pastry project.
Speaking of pastries, don’t pass-up the baklava tray at the cash register, where Atalan is selling sweet pastries by the piece ($1.99) that have been imported from Gaziantep, a city near his home in Southeastern Anatolia that’s known for its baklava, which is notable, he said, for its use of intense local pistachios and local butter infusing its 14 fine and flaky, syrup-soaked layers.
“Nobody can make it quite like that in the U.S.,” says Atalan. “And we serve it here with Turkish hospitality.”
Queen Village Food Market, 339 Bainbridge St., 215-625-2405; on Facebook