Nato Lokantasi is exactly the type of crowded, intimate restaurant I seek out when I travel. It’s been around since 1952, it’s off the beaten path, and the food is working-class. You won’t find a tasting menu, a view or a tree-shaded terrace. In fact, the food is already prepared, kept warm at a steam table, so that the time between ordering and eating is measured in seconds, not minutes.

It’s also a good example of Istanbul’s esnaf lokantası (or “tradesman’s restaurant”), where the menu offers daily specials—an assortment of meat, vegetables and soups. We ordered döner (the shaved meat was wonderfully juicy), lentil soup, beans, manti (dumplings in a yogurt sauce), kadınbudu köfte (which translates as “lady’s thighs meatballs”) and rice pudding topped with grated hazelnuts.

The kadınbudu köfte were a standout. The exterior was crisp, and the interior was speckled with cooked rice, dressing up what otherwise would be a standard köfte. As for the colloquial name, lady’s thighs, I leave that to the mists of history.

The next day, I traveled to the outskirts of Istanbul to cook with Banu Özden, our guide and a culinary researcher and instructor. She explained that kadınbudu köfte are made with half raw and half cooked meat. (The köfte are finished off in hot oil to fry the exterior.) When tested, we discovered that this, though a curious directive, undeniably produced a delightfully tender, juicy meatball.

The method is simple enough: Sauté onions, then half the meat, add the cooked rice and knead well. Add the remaining raw beef, an egg, cinnamon and cumin. Then knead and roll into cigar-shaped köfte, slightly pressing each meatball to a half-inch thickness. Once shaped, chill them for at least 30 minutes, then dip in flour and egg and shallow-­fry for a few minutes on each side.

Most tourists come to Istanbul for the history, the mashup of Europe and Asia across the Bosporus, plus the baklava, menemen, gözleme and yogurt-based soups. But I would go back for a simple lunch of kadınbudu köfte in a working-class restaurant that feels far away from Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar.