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Berlin Dispatch: Döner Dreams and Kunefe Reality

When one of my new German friends told me that he has a friend called Steve who co-hosts a cult variety show called Berlin F***ing City – and that Steve has spent the past year combing the metropolis for the best döner kebab, I had an idea: why not invite Steve on a taxi adventure and ask the cabbie to take us to his favorite spot for döner?

Fast forward. My new German friend, his friend, and Steve instruct me to meet them at the Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn stop in Kreuzberg, Berlin’s Turkish quarter. (Thanks to the ingenuity of a Turkish immigrant called Mahmut Aygun, who invented döner kebab in 1971, there are over 15,000 restaurants in the country that sell what’s now considered to be Germany’s favorite fast food. A lot of them are in Kreuzberg.)

We’re ready to grill the first taxi driver we see about his döner kebab leanings. But the first cabbie who drives by takes one look at our hunger-crazed mugs and zooms past our waving arms. We march over to the nearest taxi stand, where Mercedes and Audi cabs line up, waiting for passengers.

Steve and company lean in to chat with the first driver in line. Since I know about 23 words in German, the only ones I pick up are “kalifornien,” “journalist” and “essen” (to eat). The boys point at me, and I fill in the blanks of their explanation in my mind: This is a taxi driver journalist from California who’s visiting Berlin and loves to eat. She’s looking for the best döner kebab in the city – you know, American tourists, what can we say? Anyway, do you know a good place for döner? Could you take us?

The negotiations go well. The boys motion for me to get in the front seat. They pile in the back. I pull out my video camera. The cabbie refuses to be filmed. But when he tells my co-adventurers that he eats döner kebab every single shift, I don’t care.

We learn that Harun has been driving for 15 of the 30 years that he’s lived in Berlin. When he reveals that he’s originally from the town of Konya in Turkey, I do a double take.

“Konya!” I say, “That’s where Rumi was from, isn’t it?”

The cabbie throws me a blank stare.

“Rumi,” I say, “The great poet…?”

Still nothing. I must be butchering the name beyond recognition for a native Turkish speaker. And I doubt myself. Was Rumi actually from Konya? (I check it out after I get home: Konya was actually Rumi’s last home and also the city where the Mevlevi Sufi order, which gave birth to the whirling dervishes, established itself. I envy the cabbie his romantic origins. And, yes, I am a nerd.)

By the time we finish not talking about Rumi, Harun stops in front of Hasir Restaurant, telling us that this is where he eats döner kebab when he’s behind the wheel.

We wave at servers who ignore us, studying walls crammed with framed plaques and newspaper articles, which, according to my co-adventurers, contain positive reviews.

“This must be a good place,” one of them says.

“Except they have slow service, no air conditioning and no windows,” Steve says. The heat coming off the döner in the window has weight. We drip. My Efes beer turns warm in an instant.

Eventually we persuade a server to bring us a plate of hummus (which is delicious: sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, mixed with just enough garlic and lemon, and so light it’s nearly mousse) and a döner kebab platter.

The lamb from the döner is cut by hand into paper-thin slices that nearly dissolve on our tongues. It’s moist, rich with fat but not greasy. This is not a wholesale hunk of unidentifiable meat. Everyone approves. Until we discover that the platter, which comes with rice (hidden under the meat), onions and sumac, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and Turkish flatbread costs 9.50 Euros.

“This is expensive for what it is,” my co-adventurers say, “Not the best döner, but better than average.”

It’s all about the price-quality ratio, they explain. Most döner kebab costs between 3-5 Euros. Why is this one so much more expensive? And how can Harun afford to eat here every day?

We wander next door to Hasir’s sister restaurant, where the cabbie also eats shish kebab now and then. But we’re in no mood for shish kebab after tasty but overpriced döner. And when we spot the dessert menu, all thoughts of shish kebab disappear. Turkish fruit pudding (3 Euros). Turkish milk pudding (3 Euros). Kunefe (4 Euros). We order all three.

We take a bite of milk pudding. It’s good: rich, smooth, not too sweet. We like the fruit pudding less, except when we find pieces of fig on our spoons.

Kunefe.
But one bite of kunefe is enough to shake all of us out of our heat and döner kebab-induced stupor. It’s amazing: shredded filo (a.k.a. kadayif) soaking in butter and honey, filled with soft Turkish cheese, baked to a crisp in a clay oven, dusted with walnuts. Softness and crunch converge. The cheese checks the sweetness. Our eyes roll back in our heads. We try to be polite, urging each other to eat more of it, to go deeper into pleasure, even as we hope the last bite never arrives.

I tell my co-adventurers about the kunefe from Laziza Bakery in New York. Hasir’s version blows it to bits, I say. They love it. Our server loves it. We love Harun, even if we know he brought us to Hasir because it’s where döner kebab was invented, where tour buses stop, and where Anthony Bourdain ate döner when he visited Berlin (beginning at 9:15 here):

Hasir Restaurant
Adalbertstrasse 10 & 12
Kreuzberg 10999 Berlin
Tel 030 616 59 222
Website (with other locations): www.hasir.de

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16 comments

  1. Nerds rule….since I am a total dork. :)

    Now, I am wondering where to find a good kosher/halal doner kabab in NYC. Darn you. ;)

    • Here are 2 leads:

      Taam Tov: Glatt kosher. I haven’t tried the doner (aka shawerma/shwarma) here, and I’ve heard mixed reviews. But it is totally kosher and baksh (chicken cilantro rice) is so good it’s worth the trip alone. 41 W 47th St near 6th Ave.

      Golan Heights: I have not been here. But I’ve heard very good things about their shawerma and it’s kosher. 2553 Amsterdam Ave between 186th St & 187th St

      Feel free to chime in, hungry people, if you have any more leads…

      • PS – I’ve also heard good things about Ali Baba on 34th Street (212 East 34th St). It’s halal. They supposedly cut their meat into the requisite paper thin slices that melt on your tongue (according to my Turkish source in NYC).

  2. Layne, your peers loved your post and nominated it this week as our BlogHer Voice of the Week. And we agree! I’ve posted a writeup on your adventure here on BlogHer: http://www.blogher.com/blogher-voice-week-layne-taxi-gourmet. Hope you enjoy. Thanks for the post!

    Best,

    Jory

    for Jory, Lisa, and Elisa,
    BlogHer Co-Founders

    • Jory, this is a huge honor for me. I am so thrilled! Thank you so very much for letting me know – and for your fabulous write-up about Taxi Gourmet. Rock on, BlogHer!!

  3. Rumi is from Konya. However he is known under the name Mevlana in Turkey. Rumi is not used. I am sure the cabbie knows Mevlana. Everybody does. Rumi means someone Asia Minor.

  4. One day, I will take you to Habibah in Jordan. That is THE definitive knafeh. In. The. World. And I happen to have a short video on my iphone, will show you next time I see you.

    • Oh, wow. I’d be curious about what you think about the kunefe at Gel Gor in Kreuzberg – it’s the best one I’ve tasted in Berlin. By the way, I tried hummus and other things at Qadmous and was disappointed. I think hummus at Knofi’s is way better…

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