One step through the glass doors, and I knew Mado Café was the perfect place to sit back and sip a real cappuccino. The pretty little franchised bistro, sandwiched between Ataturk St. and the Orontes River, represented the Turkey that so badly wanted to be Western European. This was a place where waiters, dressed smartly in collared shirts with skinny ties, hovered around the main dining room delivering flaky pastries and delicate ice cream to the affluent young Turks of Antakya.
I had just returned from eight days in Aleppo with Malcolm, a freelance writer out of Chicago. We were interviewing Syrian refugees on the Turkish-Syrian border with our interpreter, Mohamed. We needed a place to sit and go over the day’s notes and settle Mohamed’s fee. We all looked out of place in our cargo pants and filthy hiking boots, but the dainty surroundings were a welcome departure from the whole-in-the-wall döner shops we were becoming regulars at.
“I can’t afford to come here, really,” Mohamed said, as we walked past the French and Turkish dessert displays. “I hear it is a good place though.”
The 26-year-old, with slicked-back red hair and a giant smile, had fled from Homs with his father, mother and younger sister a few months before. He was a promising doctor with a pretty girlfriend and a bright future—before the protests, bombings, and talks of revolution and jihad had disrupted his life in Syria. Now, his family was sharing a small apartment with two other families, and they were running out of money fast.
The day before, he was out looking for work in the main bazaar when we walked up to him and asked for directions to the bus station. He said he wasn’t from the area and didn’t know where it was, but without hesitation he offered to find out and accompany us to our destination. His Turkish was shaky but his English was nearly perfect, so by the time we reached the station and located the van heading to Reyhanli, we had hired ourselves a translator.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m buying.”
I noticed the manager and waiters shuffling behind the counter as we made our way to a table in the middle of the cafe. I imagined they were drawing straws to see who would serve the dirty American journalists and their Syrian friend. Before I could set my cameras down, a waiter had already placed menus in front of us.
“To drrenk?” he asked.
Cappuccinos all around, we answered.
I flipped through the menu as Mohamed talked about his great admiration of Tony Robbins. Apparently the motivational speaker, whom I always dismissed as an infomercial hack and faux-inspiration huckster, was responsible for Mohamed’s advanced English skills and bright disposition. His face lit up when he explained how Robbins was as much a part of his life as medicine was.
“No shit,” I said as Malcolm laughed. “Tony Robbins?”
“Yes,” Mohamed said. “Tony Robbins is a great man. I have listened to all of his audio recordings.”
And that’s when I saw it.
“No way,” I mumbled.
“What is wrong?” Mohamed asked.
There, on the third page of Mado Café’s menu – among salads and pasta dishes, and without a hint of irony – was a dish I never thought I’d find in the southern-most province of Turkey. I pointed at the item and held it up for Malcolm and Mohamed to see. They both squinted and leaned in to see the words above my index finger: Texas Burger.
“Don’t do it, man,” Malcolm said with a chuckle.
I couldn’t help it. If it was just called a Hamburger or even an American Burger I might have ignored it, but they had taken Texas in vain, and I needed to see their take on what a burger from my home state should taste like.
“Fuck it,” I said. “I’m going to order it.”
Mohamed looked confused. His new friend, and employer, was visibly agitated about something on the menu, but he didn’t understand why.
“Is it too expensive?” he asked, darting his eyes between me and Malcolm.
“We’ll see,” I said as I stared down our waiter.
I ordered the burger before he could set down all three cappuccinos at our table. He nodded, repeated my order back to me and disappeared behind the counter.
I tried to image what the Texas Burger would look like. It was Turkey, so bacon was out of the question. I had already tried to ask people for mustard on other dishes, but it seemed Turks only believed in mayonnaise and ketchup. Maybe I would get lucky and the thing would have hot peppers falling off the sides.
A few minutes later, our waiter walked out with my burger high above his head. Looking at him, you might think he was delivering the finest cut of fillet Mado Café could offer, and you would be wrong of course — terribly, terribly wrong. He placed it in front of me and I heard Malcolm giggle and then let out a roaring laugh.
Now, I’ve had all sorts of “Texas” burgers in my life. I’ve devoured both the shittiest fast-food versions and the best steakhouse representations the Lone Star State had to offer (the best by far can be found in a tiny burger hut in La Gloria, Texas), but this was, by far, the most pathetic attempt I had ever seen.
The top bun had soaked in a few squirts of ketchup while the orange-hued patty sat atop two tomato slices, a tiny pickle and some shredded lettuce. On the other side of the plate were seven lonely French fries, probably wondering why they had been brought into this mess.
It was just depressing.
“Thank you,” I said, waiving off the waiter.
I assembled the “burger” and bit into it. After a few chews I realized I had missed the meat patty entirely with my first bite. I could only taste the soggy bun and flavorless veggies! I felt like the Alamo had been overrun again. What the fuck was I eating?
I sat there, consuming my meal slowly as Malcolm and Mohamed stared at me. After each bite I looked down at what I was holding between my hands in disgust. When I was done with the burger I moved on to the fries. They were shit too. There wasn’t a crumb left on the plate a few minutes later and I hated myself for it.
I looked up from the empty plate and saw the concerned look on Mohamed’s face. I quickly realized how stupid the entire episode was.
I had witnessed so much pain and destruction in Syria before sitting there at Mado, and my visceral reaction was really a trivial one compared to what Mohamed was going through as a refugee. As I looked over at him, I tried to convince myself that it could all be worse and that I shouldn’t care what this little café called their hamburgers.
I wanted to apologize to him for making such a scene, but the only thing that came out of my mouth was –
“Fuck this place.”