At this new Turkish ice cream shop in Long Beach, the show stars rare dondurma

Erkan Gozal holds out a green ice cream cone from behind the counter affixed with red fabric and gold tassels at Galata
Galata's ice cream master, Erkan Gozal, specializes in the "ice cream show," flipping and swapping cones, toying with the customers and adding a sense of whimsy to the Long Beach scoop shop. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

The ice cream flips, twists and floats just out of reach, attached to one end of a long silver scooping staff being controlled by a professional trickster on the other side of the counter. The second you think you’ve firmly grasped the cone in your hand, it's out of your reach yet again. And you realize a split second too late that you were holding a decoy cone all along.

The “ice cream show” at Galata, Long Beach's new Turkish scoops shop, is beloved by children, but it’s just as fun and whimsical for adults. Customers have been flocking from multiple counties to get a taste since Galata debuted earlier this summer.

The reason the trickery is even possible is due to the nature of dondurma, a centuries-old Turkish ice cream style that utilizes salep (ground orchid roots) and mastic (plant resin) to create a chewy texture that’s also slower to melt than most other ice cream.

True dondurma is something of a rarity in Southern California. L.A. is home to similar flavors and even textures from Persian ice cream stalwarts such as Mashti Malone’s and Saffron and Rose, but dondurma traditionally incorporates more salep and mastic, resulting in ice cream that pulls in dramatic strings, akin to cheese, but remains firm.

“Persian people make it a little more sugary and they put saffron, and Arabic people put cardamom, which is kind of spicy,” said Istanbul-born Akin Gulec, who manages Galata. “[Dondurma is] more like European ice cream, and with less sugar. You can’t compare to U.S. ice cream, because here ice creams are more sugary and more cold, maybe — you can’t feel your mouth.”

Gulec said he has found Turkish baklava shops and even Turkish delight shops and Turkish restaurants since moving to California but has failed to find another Turkish ice cream shop anywhere in the region.

Gulec said the team didn’t expect such a rush of enthusiasm, but it was a welcome surprise. Nearly 1,000 customers have filed through the front door, some local but many who’ve made Galata a destination. The customers tell staff they’ve traveled from Santa Ana, L.A. and farther for a taste.

It’s precisely why Galata’s owners decided to open in Long Beach.

Erkan Gozal doles out a comical mountain of white Turkish ice cream onto a cone for a boy at Galata.
Erkan Gozal pranks a customer by providing just a bit too much dondurma during one of his "ice cream shows." (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Mike Schochet and Eyüp Tekinbaş own the neighboring Galata Halal Restaurant and Grill, which opened last year, as well as an adjacent Turkish decor store, Istanbul Home.

Tekinbaş dreamed of opening a business in the U.S. after having launched multiple enterprises in Dubai, Qatar and Istanbul, and friend and real estate developer Schochet wanted to help bring the unique Turkish specialty to the States.

They transformed a former Japanese-restaurant space into an eye-catching corner shop, the exterior painted light pink. Inside, the pistachio-hued back wall is the same color as the most popular of their two dozen-plus flavors imported from Turkey. The nut, sometimes called “green gold,” flecks pistachio-flavored dondurma through white ribbons of milky dondurma. It’s earthy and a far cry from the often neon-tinged, artificially flavored pistachio ice creams found more readily.

A coconut-based bubble gum flavor, colored bright blue, is a top pick among children and is often featured during the "ice cream show.” Other options include kiwi, chestnut, chocolate, vanilla and coffee. Dairy-free flavors, such as blackberry or strawberry, are made simply with fruit purée, salep and sugar.

“Also, we’re not serving any toppings,” Gulec said. “We don’t have any toppings — sprinkles, M&Ms, chocolate — because we trust the taste of our ice cream.”

The dairy blend of cow and goat milk for Galata’s ice cream comes from Kahramanmaraş, a province famed for its agriculture — and especially its ice cream.

Erkan Gozal is also from the region. The shop’s master of ice cream has years of experience working with ice cream in Turkey, Jordan, China and beyond; he conducts quality control tests, trains the staff and is often the trickster pulling the ice cream cone just out of your reach.

The Subzwari family experienced the show after driving from Irvine for a taste. They’ve enjoyed dondurma in Istanbul four or five times.

“There's some Persian ice cream stores in L.A., but Turkish is really known for that stretchy ice cream taste,” said Zeeshan Subzwari, who brought his three sons. “It's just the whole [show] experience with the kids that makes it worthwhile. It’s so much fun, the kids look forward to it.”

According to all four family members, Galata’s ice cream tastes similar — if not identical — to the varieties they’ve tried in Turkey.

A closeup of sour cherry Turkish delight coated in pistachio in the deli case at Galata
Imported Turkish baklava, Turkish delight and other sweets can be ordered by the piece near the register. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Customers don’t just visit for the dondurma. Rows of baklava and other imported treats wait near the front door in glass cases. Logs of mango Turkish delight, sheet trays of baklava in all imaginable varieties, rows of small rounded şekerpare — or semolina cookies soaked in syrup — and thick, rose-petal-coated pipes of chocolate-and-milk rolls can all be ordered by the piece and enjoyed at small tables with cups of Turkish coffee and tea.

These Turkish treats sometimes meld with the desserts, as in the case of the triangular wedge of pistachio baklava that can sandwich a thick pile of vanilla dondurma. Bombastic celebrity chef Salt Bae popularized this dessert, sometimes coating his baklava in edible gold leaf; at Galata it’s served with less flourish but still receives positive feedback from guests.

Behind the counter, shelves of imported Turkish teas — apple flavor, black tea, ginger tea — and Turkish coffee can be purchased.

The team hopes to expand the Galata ice cream brand in San Diego, Newport Beach and L.A. Schochet is scouting locations to bring a taste — and some cone-swapping trickery — to cities around Southern California soon. For now, find Galata open in Long Beach at 5201 E. 2nd St. from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.