The Ballstonian isn’t your standard brick and mortar coffee shop. It’s a three-wheeled, fire hydrant–red cart. But don’t let the size fool you. Owner Isa Seyran is serving up some mighty, authentic flavors.
“Anything I serve here must have at least a half-millennia history,” he says.
Seyran sells Turkish coffee, masala chai, and pastries on the 4000 block of Ballston’s Wilson Avenue. Seyran’s cart is custom-made from Turkey, where he grew up. It has electricity, running water, and a coffee machine, also from Turkey. He tried 10 machines before finding the right match.
The Ballstonian opens at 7 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. on weekends and closes once Seyran runs out of food, usually around 2 or 3 p.m., he says.
Seyran didn’t always envision himself in the food industry. He grew up in Istanbul, reading German, Arabic, and Iranian poetry and studying at Turkey’s Ankara University. In 2000, Seyran was ready for a new challenge and moved to Ballston.
He began working as a waiter at DC’s top restaurants, including José Andrés’ Zaytinya. There, he showed the staff how to make Turkish coffee. He says some customers skipped their main courses and went straight for Seyran’s drink.
“That experience was always in the back of my mind, how popular Turkish coffee was and the culture and history behind it,” he says.
Seyran serves the same coffee at the Ballstonian. The key, he says, is the traditional double boiling technique. The grounds, infused with cinnamon and cardamom, are boiled in water. Then, the heat is turned off, allowing the spices to develop. The coffee is boiled again before it’s served.
Seyran also offers masala chai, which he learned to make while working at Rasika, one of DC’s best Indian restaurants. Seyran says he’s served chai to high-profile Washington figures, including Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Seyran’s chai is cooked with milk, fresh ginger, cloves, old spice, black pepper, and a cinnamon stick. It doesn’t come from a tea bag or powder, he says, glancing toward the Starbucks on the corner.
“It’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he says.
In addition to drinks, Seyran offers pastries, including baklava. Seyran’s baklava is made with honey, rather than simple syrup. This way, he says, the sweetness doesn’t overpower the pistachios or crisp phyllo dough.
Seyran says this recipe hails from Gaziantep, a Turkish city north of the Syrian border.
“That city has a really, really rich gastronomic history,” he says.
A customer approaches, and Seyran pivots.
“Merhaba! How are you?” he says with a wide grin. The customer orders baklava. Seyran’s eyes light up, and he rattles off facts about the food’s origins.
“Herodotus, the Greek historian, talks about it in The Odyssey. He mentions a phyllo dessert with walnuts and sugar,” Seyran says.
“Serbia also has baklava,” the customer says.
“Absolutely,” Seyran agrees, nodding his head.
The two chatter about other Eastern European and Middle Eastern dishes like burek, a pastry Seyran sells.
The ability to connect with his customers like this is what led Seyran to open a cart instead of a storefront. He’s rarely behind the counter. He’s usually in front of his cart on the sidewalk, ready to greet customers with a firm handshake.
“I want to be that guy on the corner who sees these people and says ‘Hi, dude,’ who’s going to remember your pet, who’s going to ask you about your trip to New York,” he says.
Seyran says he hopes to expand the Ballstonian and help transform the neighborhood into an urban oasis. An empty courtyard sits in front of his cart. But that’s not what Seyran sees.
He dances across the cement, pointing toward where he would put bookshelves of poetry and seat cushions.
“This is an empty canvas that I could do magic with,” he says.
Seyran says people can grab a cup of his coffee or chai and sit in the courtyard for literary discussions, performances, and film festivals he would host.
Seyran is no stranger to the DC arts scene. Since moving to the area, Seyran has published two books, including one based on his experience as a waiter. He has also written, directed, and produced a play and film.
Now, Seyran says the Ballstonian is his stage, where he sings his love for food, conversation, and culture.
“I realized we need to feed our stomachs, but at the same time, I need to feed my soul. I’m curious. I’m hungry. I think that’s what sets me apart from the rest.”
Feature image by Rachel Schlueter
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