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Berlin Dispatch: An Urban Cowboy and His Fish Soup

In Argentine folklore, the gaucho is a sort of estranged cowboy, a rebel who lives off the land. I have an Argentine writer friend who once made a brilliant observation about the taxi drivers of Buenos Aires being the new gauchos.

“Their cabs are their horses,” she explained, “Their passengers are the cattle, the streets are their terrain, and their desire for freedom is at the center of it all.”

The more cab rides I took in Buenos Aires, the more I agreed with her. Over and over again, taxistas told me they’d chosen their profession because they couldn’t stomach the idea of a traditional boss or a 9-5 schedule. Driving a cab allowed them to come and go as they pleased – or even disappear.

After riding from Brandenburg Gate to Wilmersdorf in Roland’s cab a few days ago, I realized that the new gauchos are not confined to Buenos Aires.

It wasn’t just the steely eyes or the black leather vest that made me think of Roland as an urban cowboy. It wasn’t even the fact that he’s been riding and racing horses since he was six years old. It was his whole what-the-hell approach to our journey – and his obvious attachment to his independence.

Roland didn’t give a fig that we were being filmed by a TV crew from a German news show called RTL:

And he made it very clear as we went deeper into our conversation that his entire professional life was organized around a single principle: his freedom.

At one time, he owned three taxis, but he got rid of them when he realized he could make the same money – and deal with less paperwork and get away to Portugal three times a year – leasing a cab from someone else.

When the Wall came down, Roland was living in East Berlin. How did he learn the other half of the city?

“I’ve been driving for 25 years. I learned by doing. It’s normal. Every week you learn something new in this job. I love it,” he said.

Tell me all about it, I said. That’s when I confessed that I drive a cab in New York.

“Oh really?” he said, “I have a girlfriend who drove a cab in New York. She drives a cab here now.”

“What?! Your girlfriend is a cabbie? I’ve never known a cab driving couple. That is so cool! How did you meet her?”

It wasn’t quite that poetic in the end – the ‘girlfriend’ actually turned out to be a female friend of his. But I still thought it was pretty cool that he’d fallen in love with one of his dispatchers, moved to West Berlin and had a son with her. In the end, though, he married a doctor’s assistant – in one of the three restaurants he recommended to us.

Roland told me right off the bat that his kitchen was the best restaurant in town, but when he does eat out, it’s at one of several places near his apartment in Wilmersdorf (an upper-middle class neighborhood on Berlin’s west side).

Being the sap that I am, I was leaning toward the Italian place where he’d had his wedding – and where he told us they make good garlic soup and spaghetti aglio olio (with garlic, olive oil, and shrimp). But there was also a Mexican place owned by two Turkish sisters called Alcatraz. Then there was Soley’s, where the owner was Persian, the waitress Venezuelan, and the food “fresh and different every day.”

“Okay,” I said, “We can’t eat at all three places, even though we’d like to. Which one is the best?”

“Can I ask my wife?” he said.

My co-adventurers and I giggled as Roland pressed a button on the steering wheel, put his wife on speaker phone, and explained our dilemma.

After a few mystified seconds, she said “Alcatraz” and told us to order the chicken and avocado salad. But the restaurant was closed when we drove by, so we ended up at Soley’s. Despite the fact that we were all dripping with summer sweat, Roland insisted we try the fish soup and told us we “couldn’t go wrong with the fajitas or the nachos.”

I was willing to trust the cabbie on the soup, but I couldn’t cross my Mexican food snob line to fajitas or nachos. Could they be any good in an empty restaurant that was also attempting Spanish tapas and cheeseburgers? I didn’t want to find out. I stuck with the fish soup and ordered chorizo to follow.

Roland was right about the soup. Somehow, squid and shrimp and mussels were all remarkably fresh (how was this possible? The Baltic Sea is two hours away). The light, tomato-based broth stood back and let the seafood shine. Potatoes gave it heft – fresh lemon and flat leaf parsley injected a little brightness. All in all, a good way to spend 6 euros – I don’t know if I’d make a special trip to Wilmersdorf for it, but I’d definitely stop by if I were in the neighborhood.

The cook’s light touch with the soup didn’t extend to the chorizo. Like a lot of sausage in Berlin, it had fallen in the deep fryer. I don’t know if it’s suicidal tendencies that move people to deep fry the wurst here – sometimes it works (in a currywurst context). But sometimes deep frying actually masks the subtleties of a sausage, which is what happened with my poor chorizo. The spiciness was great, but hot oil had scalded the sweetness out of the red pepper, giving it a bitter aftertaste.

Maybe Roland was right: I should have ordered fajitas after all.

Prinzregentenstrasse 53 – Wilmersdorf
10715 Berlin
Tel. 030 850 72 290
Web: www.soleys.de

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