I always arrive in Berlin, Germany with a craving for kebab. The city — boasting one of the world’s largest Turkish populations outside of Turkey — is known for its unique version of döner. I set out to explore two neighborhoods, Neukölln and Kreuzberg, both known for their Turkish communities, cheap multicultural cuisine and lately, gentrification – an influx of students, hipsters, yuppies and artists taking advantage of low rents and easy living. The thing about Turkish food in Berlin – it’s not like Turkish food anywhere else, including Turkey.
Döner is meat — typically veal, beef, lamb or chicken — stacked onto a vertical spit, slowly roasting as it turns. Thin slices are shaved off and placed on round pide bread to make a fast food sandwich, or kebab. Delicious! Unlike traditional Turkish döner, in Berlin it’s all about the salad and sauce. The “salat” varies depending on the locale, but is frequently prepared with cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and onions. The sauces (there are several) are: yogurt, garlic, herb and fiery hot. Though döner traditionalists may deride Germany’s sauce obsession, I’m into it – I even attempted to request extra sauce with my (extremely) limited German.
Ein Dürüm mit grosse Sause, bitte!
Oh, and speaking of “Ein Dürüm,” I can’t talk about Turkish food in Berlin without mentioning my favorite hand-held, sauce-spiked, fast food treat. Dürum is a wrap made with soft, ultra-thin flatbread, stuffed with döner components and rolled into a tube shape. It’s more portable/less messy than traditional döner and personally, I prefer the dürüm’s warm, chewy exterior.
My Turkish adventures in Berlin take me to three distinct locations: a beloved neighborhood restaurant, an über-popular street cart and a 24-hour kofte haven recommended by one of the city’s top foodies.
Sonnenallee 132 (Neükolln)
Location, location, location. When Balli Restaurant was recommended to me by friends in Neükolln, it didn’t hurt that it was around the corner from their apartment. They assured me their suggestion wasn’t one of convenience and that Balli really did serve up the area’s best döner. I ordered a dürüm, mit everything on it, including grosse Sause. To date, this is my favorite kebab in Berlin. I didn’t even make it out the door. The first irresistible bite had me sinking into the restaurant’s nearest booth, ordering up a beer as spicy grease ran down my chin, fingers peeling back layers of foil. Another reason to eat at Balli is their genuine charcoal grill, making the restaurant’s non-döner dishes like shish and kofte worthy of a return trip.
Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap
Mehringdamm 32 (Kreuzberg)
First, let’s address the German elephant in the room: if you’re somewhat of a polyglot, you’ll know that “Gemüse” means “vegetables.” It’s true that Mustafa makes a killer vegetarian kebab, but I’m here mostly out of curiosity, and for the chicken dürüm. Online, this kebab joint is extremely popular, snagging the #1 slot of nearly every Berlin top ten food list. Is the hype to be believed? I surface from the U-Bahn to a queue of more than 40 people, all waiting for their chance to try Mustafa’s famous kebab. When I see the line, my heart leaps. I’m a New Yorker, we like to wait in lines for food whether it’s 45 minutes for a Shake Shack burger or 2 hours for Sunday brunch. Psychologically, I’m sold. The fuss: next to the cart’s vertical spit, a man sinks a basket of vegetables into a deep frier, sprinkles them in soy sauce and spices and adds them to each kebab. A mountain of ingredients appears on my dürüm flatbread – thinly shaven chicken döner, fried veggies, cabbage salad with tomatoes, onions and sauce. As a final touch, a fresh lemon is liberally squeezed over the kebab before it’s rolled up and handed over. I enjoy the balanced flavors and the addition of fried vegetables, but realize I’m not really a chicken kebab kind of girl. If a slowly rotating spit is involved, I prefer a stronger-flavored meat.
Kottbusser Damm 80 (Kreuzberg)
For my final foray into Berlin’s Turkish cuisine, I sought the advice of the city’s resident expert, Layne Mosler of taxigourmet.com. This is the woman who invented the concept of culinary cab confessions. For years she’s hopped into the back of taxi cabs around the world and asked drivers to take her where they like to eat. At one point, Layne even became a certified cab driver. She currently lives in Berlin and is writing a book about her epic culinary adventures-on-wheels. Layne’s recommendation: Gel Gor, a 24-hour take-out restaurant specializing in köfte. Köfte are a kind of Turkish meatball, minced meat (usually lamb, veal or beef) packed with fresh herbs and spices, then grilled on a skewer. The menu is posted above the counter in the form of pictures. I order a dürüm köfte, wrapped in freshly made flatbread with extra hot sauce. The köfte are fantastic, the herbs stand out and the meat is tender and juicy. The fact that Gel Gor is open 24 hours makes it the perfect 3AM foodie destination after what can only be described as a Berlin-style night on the town.