Until a year ago, Oliver Freuen was playing soccer in Germany's regional fourth league. He was on a path toward professional football in the Bundesliga, but it wasn't meant to be.
"My dream was over," the long-haired 27-year-old says. "I had to find a new plan."
The new plan was something he knew all his life: döner kebab. Two weeks ago, he and partners who also own downtown Miami's Jar & Fork opened Spitfire (405 15th St., Miami Beach; 305-407-5828), offering Germany's favorite street food a few steps off Washington Avenue.
Freuen grew up in a similar restaurant his family ran in Bremen in northwestern Germany, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Hamburg's sprawling ports. The eatery, Kismet, served the wildly popular Turkish-inspired sandwiches filled with spit-roasted meat shaved, packed into doughy loaves or flatbread called pide, and dressed with a mashup of German and Middle Eastern accoutrements. Think sautéed red cabbage and a grassy cucumber salad with tzatziki in the same bite.
His uncles opened it in 1979 after emigrating from Iskenderun on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, where their father owned a kebab shop. The family was part of a wave of guest workers who brought hundreds of thousands of Turks to central Europe to help fuel its booming economy, still starved for manpower following the ravages of World War II.
Image courtesy Spitfire
Spit-roasted meat with rice had long been a favored quick meal in Turkey. The person who created the sandwich version, however, is unclear. The BBC said it was widely credited to Kadir Nurman, who set up a small stall in Berlin in 1972 looking to get the fragrant shards of meat into the hands of Germans on the move. He died in 2013 at the age of 80. Meanwhile, a 2009 story in the Telegraph credits a 16-year-old named Mahmut Aygun with inventing the snack. Either way, the bread was the answer, and today an estimated 16,000 döner kebab restaurants are dotted across Germany, according to the Berlin-based Association of Turkish Doner Manufacturers in Europe.
"They're mom-and-pop places. You can find them anywhere, any time of day," Freuen says.
Kebab ready to be rolled into lahmajoun.
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At Spitfire, the sandwiches don't stray from the originals. Three hulking mounds of chicken, pork, and beef are brought in from Fort Lauderdale's Old Heidelberg Deli daily and twirled on spits, basting in their own juices. Off to the side, a worker can be seen forming the dough for bread and rolling out lahmajoun. The former, which lays the base for the döner ($8), is sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds before being baked. Fill it with thin slivers of beef flank and brisket seasoned with garlic, oregano, and cumin before choosing from an array of toppings.
The filled lahmajoun, called a spitfire ($9), is the better choice. A tender, semistretchy flatbread is painted with a cherry-red sauce of ground beef, tomatoes, sumac, cumin, and parsley. The flatbread is briefly warmed before it's filled, this time with curls of juicy chicken thigh doused in a pungent yellow curry sauce.
Americans in recent years have begun developing a taste for these sandwiches, and one of Freuen's partners said another group of Germans is planning a shop on Alton Road. Still, Spitfire makes for a good addition to Washington Avenue. The seedy thoroughfare is littered with nonspecific Middle Eastern grab-and-go spots plying dry gyros and chalky falafel. Let's hope Spitfire will begin staying open late, because döner feels like something that would be even better after a long night of drinking.