Anyone who visits Istanbul must eat balık ekmek (fish sandwich; balık=fish, ekmek=bread). Seriously. It's not codified in law or anything, but eating a grilled fish sandwich next to the water is as required of tourists in Istanbul as spending at least half a day dodging carpet sellers in Sultanahmet.
Unlike Sultanahmet's carpet sellers however, balık ekmek is something you'll want to revisit on subsequent Istanbul sojourns. We ate our share our first, second, and third times in Istanbul. This last trip was no different.
Most of those seeking the ultimate balık ekmek experience head to the sellers on either side of the Eminonu end of the Galata bridge. Grillers and servers sport embroidered Ottoman-ish (we're guessing) outfits that suggest they've been plying their trade in those very spots for, oh, centuries. They are an Istanbul grilled fish sandwich tradition and we can't complain about their product.
We also sampled balık ekmek on the other side of the Galata Bridge, next to Karakoy's fish market. On the weekends a couple of sellers there do a fine job, sprinkling herbs and ground red chili onto the mackerel fillets as they pop and smoke on the grill, and serving the sandwich with a generous squeeze of lemon, a decent amount of shrubbery (lettuce, carrots, tomato) and on request, a delicious smear of piquant chili paste.
(If you're looking for a sit-down experience there are a few casual restaurants beyond the fish stalls that serve sandwiches as well as fish plates. Take note: the sandwiches served on weekdays by a permanent stall steps from the bridge are dismal.)
But when it comes to must-eat grilled fish sandwiches in Istanbul we take a contrarian view. Forget Galata and head instead one span northwest to Ataturk Bridge. On the Fatih side, sandwiched between humble fishing boats and large Bosphorus tour cruisers, is a fish sandwich boat run by Mercan, a Kurd from Elazig in eastern Turkey. Mercan has been stuffing bread with grilled fish at this spot for a little over 20 years.
Cast your eyes on the peppers on Mercan's grill. This, he insists, is his southeastern (and Kurdish) improv on the classic Istanbul-style grilled fish sandwich.
"You can eat peppers then?" he confirms not one but three times before adding a few to our sandwich.
What's good about Mercan's balık ekmek? The mackerel fillets -- generously proportioned -- and the bread, bearing a beautiful char from the grilled and perfectly sized, so that fish is not lost in a sea of dough. The salad, which is fresh and crispy and if you like, piled onto your sandwich freely. The peppers of course, soft from the grill and spicier than they might appear.
Mercan is open for business as early as 9:30am, which is when we stumbled across his boat on our way to Fatih. At that hour you'll share the waterfront promenade in front of which his boat is parked with only a few strolling locals and the occasional chatty Bosphorus tour boat captain idling before his first group arrives.
Pull up a stool and enjoy a grilled fish sandwich or two under Mercan's big blue umbrella. There are no queues, no crowds. It's hard to imagine a better start to a day.