Turkish Delights

Words by Elaine Wu

Photos by Paulette Phlipot

Words by Elaine Wu

Elif Uzun’s definition of a perfect cafe isn’t the ubiquitous big chain coffee shop. “My father was a literature teacher, so I read a lot of poems and writings by Turkish writers,” she recalls. “They were always coming together in coffeehouses to have intellectual conversations or write their next poems. People come together in cafes in Turkey—lovers, writers, families. I wanted that vibe to be accessible here.”

Those memories served as the inspiration for Oklava Cafe on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Launched in June of 2023, Elif and co-owner Aziz Aslan had their fair share of issues before even opening their doors. The cafe’s narrow space and long walls proved to be a challenge to decorate. And heavy rains in early 2023 during the eatery’s construction wreaked havoc. “Water was pouring from the ceiling. Everything was ruined two weeks before we were to open,” she recalls. “But I envisioned myself here. I couldn’t give up and pick another space. I saw the pictures on the walls before I even hung them up. It was so personal for me.”

Originally from the Turkish capital of Ankara, Elif studied engineering and worked in management for Turkish Airlines before moving to Palo Alto eight years ago with her husband to start a mobile gaming company, where she is now the art director. “We like the energy in Palo Alto. It’s similar to Turkey,” she says. “It’s also a walking city. I like being active and the lifestyle here matches mine.”

So it was natural for Elif to want to bring the culture of her homeland to her adopted hometown. “There are not a lot of cozy cafes with an attention to detail and a European feel around here,” she shares. “That’s the kind of place I was craving. It was our motivation for opening this place.”

Elif may be a first-time restaurant owner, but her goals for the cafe were clear: stay authentic to the food and culture of Turkey, create a cozy vibe and make sure it was all artfully done. “I love art, design and making things beautiful,” she says happily. “Aziz handles the day-to-day operations, but I had to sit down and decide what to serve on the menu, how to serve it, the design of everything, like the boxes and the logo. I love the details.”

Oklava Cafe boasts an impressive selection of Turkey’s two most popular desserts: baklava, a classic and labor-intensive pastry made of 40 layers of phyllo dough and traditionally filled with pistachios and honey; and Turkish delights (or lokum), a jelly candy flavored with everything from grape or pomegranate juice to rosewater and dried fruits and nuts. In order to offer customers 20 different varieties of each dessert, they decided to have the delicacies made fresh by a popular store in Istanbul and shipped directly to the cafe. “It gives us the opportunity to share a lot of variety with people and use authentic Turkish ingredients and recipes,” Elif says. “Otherwise, it would be hard for us to keep up.”

With so many choices, Oklava Cafe’s expansive display case is visually stunning, full of treats of different colors, shapes and variations. “Baklava and Turkish sweets connect me to my history, my family and happy times when something is being celebrated,” she says fondly.

Other items on the menu include Turkish coffee, borek (a cheese-filled pastry), pide (a pizza-like flatbread) and Turkish bread pudding. A beautiful breakfast platter comes with sesame-covered simit, a bread similar to a pretzel, that’s served with clotted cream and honey, olives, tomato and cucumber salads, plus cheese, Turkish pastrami and a hard-boiled egg.

“With the food, I wanted to keep it authentic and exactly like they serve it in Turkey,” Elif explains. “There are no extra flavors or special changes for the American palate.” She also plans to make additions to the menu, including more lunch-focused fare, to accommodate their all-day operating hours.
Despite the challenges, Elif’s dream of creating a lovely, comfortable space reminiscent of what she grew up with has finally come true. It wasn’t just something she wanted for the community, but also for herself and her family. “There are always obstacles with everything, but it paid off. All that hard work turned into something good. That’s the important part.”