When I follow the scent of meat being sizzled over open charcoal from Caravan's parking lot, it leads me to an area near the back door of the kitchen where a chap mans a long grill glowing with embers. "Is that chicken adana?" I ask, pointing to the ground kebab lanced on a skewer. "Yes," says the Turkish grillmaster. "You should order it."
When I take my seat inside the bright, low-ceilinged dining room, a space that served German sausages when it was Bauern-Stube, and steaks when it was (most recently) The Steer, I think to myself that this is the nicest this place has ever looked. It also possesses a transporting trait I absolutely relish about such restaurants — Caravan makes me feel like I'm not in Orlando, which has become somewhat of an Orlando restaurant trait. Around me are Turks and Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Russians.
The menu, which I scan on my phone, is reflective of Central Asia's crossroads cuisine and I rattle off a list of items I want to order along with that spicy chicken adana kebab ($9.99).
But first, Turkish tea ($2.99) brewed from a beautiful, four-pot copper tea maker. Clamping down on a sugar cube with my front teeth, I sip the strong brew as it melts the sweet block into a liquid grain — I just love that sensation.
I enjoy it with shreds of obi non, a round Uzbek bread ($2.99) with wave-like crimps that's softer than a doughy pretzel and cooked in a clay oven called a tandyr. It's flecked with black and white sesame seeds and I'm totally wowed by it.
Knowing beef samsa ($4.99), a baked meat bun akin to a fattened samosa, is on its way, I decide to save most of the bread for breakfast the following day, but that fresh-baked pastry filled with small cubes of seasoned beef and onions? That I devour. I even pour some of the tomato and red pepper sauce (supplied in a gravy boat) into the flaky, laminated triangle. Glorious.
A rice dish called to'y osh ($18.99) is next. "We have this at weddings and celebrations," says the restaurant's manager of the rice pilaf dish infused with warming spices and blended with carrots, peas, raisins and chunks of lamb and beef. A side of achchiq-chuchuk ($4.99) is a customary complement.
The salad of thinly sliced tomatoes, onions and basil in light vinegar is traditionally paired with kebabs as well, and the charcoal-singed flavor of the succulent chicken adana ($9.99) is everything I hoped it would be. So remarkable, in fact, that I vow to return the next day with the dining pal to sample more charred tubes of brilliance — lamb adana ($10.99) and a beef "Lula" kebab ($9.99), Uzbekistan's answer to kofta kebab.
That lamb adana could damn well be the finest kebab in the city. It draws comparisons to the one served at Laser Wolf in Brooklyn.
"Just as good, if not better," says the pal. "And a fifth of the price," I add. The Lula, with house-ground beef, is another flame-licked wonder. The meat, BTW, is certified halal. The animals are procured from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, then sent to a facility in New Jersey for slaughter before being shipped to the restaurant, which is owned and operated by the Al-Bukhari Islamic Center next door.
I should mention that Orlando's dumpling revival isn't just confined to Chinese restaurants alone — oh no. Caravan's manti ($17.99), house-made dumplings filled with seasoned beef and served with dollops of tangy sour cream, have xiao long bao looks with pierogi vibes.
But what really has us spewing superlatives was wok-fried laghman ($17.99), hand-pulled noodles fashioned by the digits of a demigod.
No question, the Uzbek chef in the kitchen is deft with dough — as are the pastry chefs, whose trileçes ($8), or Turkish tres leches, and Russian honey cakes ($8) end meals the way they began, with grunts of approval.
And while Caravan's interior is the very epitome of "tastefully appointed," there's little to no signage on the exterior of the beige-colored building. (If you're traveling south on Orange Avenue and hit Sand Lake Road, you've gone too far.)
Yes, there can be numerous construction and traffic annoyances driving down this busy thoroughfare in Pine Castle but, whatever you do, don't dodge this Caravan.