Crowborough’s king of kebabs

It’s 7:45 on a dreary Wednesday night in downtown Crowborough, and the Cross Kebab truck is attracting its customary steady trickle of customers amid the rain.

The truck – with its noteworthy awning to shelter customers and display the 64-item menu bolted to the truck’s side – has been a fixture in downtown Crowborough for 22 years. At this hour the evening is just beginning for Hakan Durmaz, 26, who took over the family’s business from his uncle six years ago. Now, he’s on duty seven days a week – 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; he’s open till 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

It’s a full-time job with odd hours for Hakan, who’s been in the business for his entire life. He has a part-time helper to keep pacewith demand, delivering each order with a smile and an estimate: “Eight to 10 minutes.”

It seems as though there’s a magnetic attraction to this rolling restaurant in a tiny hamlet tucked away in East Sussex.

One regular customer, a working guy with ladders strapped to the top of his white panel truck, pulls to the curb and hops out. He nods to Hakan and his part-time employee. Here, words are supplemental for regulars who have called in their orders and show up when the food is ready.

“I like the doner kebab,” he says forking over a tenner and waiting for change while the guys inside the spotless kitchen on wheels pack up the food. They perform a familiar ballet, dodging each other in the tiny workspace as they grill meat, deep fry chips and plate and bag each order.

“You a regular?” I ask him.

“Sure,” he says with a smile. “Great food, and good guys. I have a friend from London who comes down for a visit and he’s never seen anything like it.”

It’s the slow season for Hakan, who is as protective of his business’s details as he is proud of the top rating for food hygiene given by the UK Food Standard Agency.

“Look around,” he says with a big smile. “No one else around here has a Five Rating.”

Summer time heats up, both in terms of customer traffic and in the temperatures inside the truck even on the mildest summer night. This is no part-time gig. It’s his career, and he’s taking it seriously, pouring enormous pride into the cleanliness, predictability and quality of the food.

Not that there’s a lot of competition for late-night chow in Crowborough (the sidewalks are empty by six each night) but no one – certainly not the Amigos Kebab and Pizza shop located in a building about 50 feet from where Hakan parks his truck every night – seems to cook up the kind of following that Cross Kebab enjoys.

I nod to the Amigos shop, wondering whether this McDonald’s/Burger King sort of rivalry is friendly competition or a turf battle over kebab superiority.

“Friends?” I ask him.

“Not friends,” he replies with a grin.

“They happy you’re here?”

“Not happy,” he answers with less of a grin, “but we were here first.”

It seems as though Amigos opened up five or six years ago, well after Cross Kebab began cooling its engines and firing up the gas-powered grills every night. But given the customer count I witnessed on two visits (dozen or so for Cross Kebab each visit, zero for Amigos) the curbside service and reputation for good food gives Cross the distinct advantage.

“Big menu, small truck,” he says with an equally big smile, gesturing toward the board displaying kebabs, burgers, chips (fries) and sauces.

It’s probably not the healthiest of menus (“It’s gotta be good for me, somehow,” says the grinning working guy while he waits for an enormous bag of doner and chips, which is handed over with the free can or Coke or Pepsi that Hakan and his staff provide with every order).

You won’t see calorie contents posted here. If you want healthy, eat a salad, but you won’t find one on Cross Kebab’s menu board.

Take item #44, the Texas Burger. It’s a burger with cheese, two rashers of bacon, sausage, egg and doner meat.

Or item #45, the Animal Burger, which is a burger with cheese, two bacon rashers and sausage.

But doner – a traditional Turkish dish featuring meat roasted on a vertical spit – is king at Cross Kebab. Though not high on the list of cardiologists’ recommended foods, it’s the consummate post-pub grub.

Prices range from three to nine pounds, depending on the size (small, medium, large) and complexity of your order. (Presumably a #44 with large fries would come with a free defibrillator rather than the soft drink, but I’m not asking.)

On our first visit I went for the spicy chicken kebab and Gabi sampled the peri peri chicken kebab, both of which arrived on an enormous bed of shredded lettuce and onions. Tender, succulent chicken cooked to perfection carried the perfect amount of heat and spice. It was four pounds (about $6) a pop, and a large chips was two pounds.

Gabi couldn’t finish her order, but I dug deep and managed just fine.

On this night I went with the bacon chicken burger with garlic mayo, lettuce and tomato. It was a beast of a sandwich with tender spicy chicken and perfectly-cooked English bacon. And the garlic mayo? Sauce of the gods, and it’s spread liberally throughout the sandwich.

Hakan is less generous when it comes to providing details about his business to an inquisitive visitor.

“So what are the hot items?” I ask.

He stares at me, puzzled, and I wonder if this second-generation Turkish guy is reluctant to answer or doesn’t understand.

“What things do you sell the most?” I re-phrase the question.

“I have no idea,” he answers.

“How many customers do you have on a typical night?” I probe.

“I have no idea.” Now I’m catching on. I have crossed into the sacred grounds of protected information.

“So what do you think? Five? Fifty?” I’m not quitting.

“I have no idea.” Neither is he. I try another tack.

“So what do people order?”

“Whatever they want,” he answers, not unfriendly but with a stare that lets me know that questions about the food were more welcome than asking for details about his business. Transparency apparently ends when you start talking numbers, and I can’t say that I blame the guy.

Another customer steps to the window and gets a toothy grin. “I’ll have a doner with cheesy chips, please,” she says, producing a bill and waiting for change.

“Eight to 10 minutes,” Hakan tells her.

“That’s great,” she says, pocketing the change. “I’m off to buy petrol. Back in a jiff.”

But Hakan’s already at work, slicing doner while his truck-mate fires up the grill and tosses some chips into the deep fryer, repeating a process that will take them well into the night.

My own bag of goodies in hand, I ease away from the curb as the rain picks up. Ahead, a man emerges from a car parked in front of the truck and heads to the safety of the awning and into the embrace of another Cross Kebab treat.