He was reading a Ken Follett novel when I poked my head through the passenger’s side window.
When I asked him about his favorite restaurant, he said he never ate out. But for some reason (Was it the way his tummy pushed against his orange dress shirt? Our own desperation after being rejected by three other cabbies?) we sensed this wasn’t entirely true.
“Well, there is a steak house I like,” he said. “It’s in Weissensee. About 15 minutes away – it’ll cost you 13 or 14 Euros.”
My co-adventurer and I climbed in. I noticed a hardcover copy of Einsatz in Atlantic, a novel about a submarine battle during World War II, under the driver’s side arm rest.
Thomas pulled away from the Helsingforser Strasse taxi stand and headed north on Warschauer Strasse out of Friedrichshain, where he grew up, and into Weissensee, where he moved with his wife and two daughters fourteen years ago. He’s lived in East Berlin his whole life.
He started driving a cab in 1987, “during the [Cold] War [when] the GDR [East German government] didn’t have enough taxis but you could become a taxi driver if you had your own car.”
The GDR’s other requirements? You had to have another job (Thomas repaired televisions). And your car had to be a 4-door Wartburg (which you had to wait more than 7 years to get). Is it any wonder there was a taxi shortage?
The day after the Wall fell, Thomas was taking passengers to West Berlin, where he’d never driven in his life. In the years after the Wall fell, the TV repair business went down the tubes, and he drove long haul trucks to Italy, Portugal and Spain, working as a cabbie all the while.
He spent 2003-04 driving a cab for members of the German Parliament, a job he despised for two reasons: he didn’t like having a boss, and he thought his passengers condescending and arrogant.
“They talked about how wonderful things were in Germany. Meanwhile I was struggling, barely making a living.”
If his wife didn’t work as a cook for a recycling company, they couldn’t survive, Thomas told us. She’s the main breadwinner. And since she spends all day in front of a stove, she doesn’t want to go near the kitchen when she gets home from work – which means Thomas does most of the cooking.
“I learned from my mother,” he said.
On the weekends, Thomas and his wife like to barbecue. And when they want to go out, it’s La Bandida, an Argentine steak house near their Weissensee apartment that Thomas calls “our restaurant.”
“I can’t believe a Berliner cabbie is taking me to an Argentine steak house!” I said. I told Thomas about the adventures in Buenos Aires and the steaks the size of his steering wheel.
La Bandida was closed when he pulled up to the restaurant, got out of the taxi and lit a cigarette – he wanted to go inside with us so he could look at the menu and tell us exactly which steak he liked to order, but it wasn’t to be. The cabbie felt terrible. We told him not to worry about it and made plans to come back the next day.
30 hours later, we met at La Bandida during ‘Crazy Hour,’ which lasts from 6pm-12am, and was far from wild: I counted six customers besides us. The Buena Vista Social Club was strumming a ballad. We chose a table under an ad for Desperado beer.
My co-adventurer and I studied the Argentine-Mexican-Italian menu: there were no empanadas, but we found fajitas, nachos, spaghetti, and four cuts of beef (which came in 180 gram, 250 gram or 350 gram portions), plus the baked potato and kidney beans Thomas had recommended.
I was least excited about the kidney beans, which I’d never seen on an Argentine, Mexican or Italian menu, but they turned out to be the tastiest thing on the plate. Sautéed with speck [similar to bacon], caramelized onions and jalapeño peppers, they were smoky, spicy, and perfect with 180 grams of entrecote.
The steak was good – so juicy it dripped, so tender it almost melted – but nothing like what you’d get in a Buenos Aires parrilla. I was pretty sure the beef had come from a cow that ate grain and not grass – it had that grain-fed unctuousness that we’re used to in the USA. And they’d cooked the meat with a vinegar-based steak sauce, which would be sacrilege in Argentina (where salt is the only seasoning that goes near most beef). I left half the baked potato uneaten – the cloud of sour cream on top was cheesier than it was sour. Not bad, just not good enough to distract me from steak and beans.
Buena Vista Social Club gave way to techno when I took my last bites – at least La Bandida’s soundtrack was something like you’d hear in a Buenos Aires parrilla. The tourist-oriented steak houses are the only ones that play tango in Argentina, and Thomas’s restaurant wasn’t about to go that route – even if no one on staff spoke Spanish.
Langhansstrasse 144 – Weissensee (near the M13 tram stop at Anton Platz)
Tel. 030 925 1623/030 960 64762
Open: Mon-Thurs 4pm-12am, Fri-Sat 11am-12am, Sun 10am-11pm
Would I go back? If I were in the neighborhood, I would. And I’d definitely order kidney beans (kidneybohnen).