It took almost two months to figure out that Herr Lehmann, my long-suffering, chain-smoking, beautifully tanned German teacher, drove a cab in Berlin for ten years.
It wasn’t until we got to the chapter on health and fitness that Herr Lehmann – who has a Ph. D. in German literature and has lived in Berlin his whole life – told us about his old job.
Every weekend during the 1980s, when his only daughter was in elementary school, he drove a taxi.
“In the 1980s, it was good money,” he said, “I could make 200 or 300 marks every weekend. Now it’s really hard to make a living as a cab driver.”
My cab driving friends in Berlin and New York would agree with him.
Interestingly, the same day Herr Lehmann told us about his decade of taxi driving in Berlin, he also told us about his weakness for wurst and fast food in general. We were slogging through some verbs when the conversation shifted to food and to his favorite burger in Berlin, which you can find at the Turkish curry wurst stand near the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn stop in Kreuzberg.
“Forget the curry wurst there,” he told us, “They don’t use pork, and you can’t make a good wurst without pork. But the burger…The burger…The hamburger is really good.”
He almost blushed when he said it.
On Sunday afternoon, I rode my bike to Cem’s Burger House – in the heart of Berlin’s Little Istanbul – to taste Herr Lehmann’s burger. Every seat at the sidewalk tables was taken. Women cut in front of me in line, yelling things in Turkish at the guys behind the counter, who were grilling and deep frying as fast as they could.
I stared at the photo of Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’ in front of the cash register – and the evil eye charms flanking the food counter – and decided to come back later.
Things were much calmer when I stopped by Cem’s today, and so was I. I stopped wondering whether I should try Herr Lehmann’s burger (1.90 Euro, 2.20 with cheese) or indulge my curiosity about Turkish curry wurst (1.40 Euro; I’m a sucker for fusion food, no matter how ill-conceived it sounds) and ordered both with a side of fries (1.20 Euro) and a can of Uludag Gazoz, a bubble gum-flavored soda pop that tastes a lot like Inka Kola and other tooth-rotting beverages. Total cost: 5 Euros.
I’ve only tried about five versions of curry wurst in Berlin, so I’m no expert, but Herr Lehmann is right about this one: when you fry your sausage and cover it in ketchup and curry, there should be some pork involved.
I left half the Turkish curry wurst on the plate, got momentarily distracted by the pile of forgettable fries (not greasy and not flavorful, despite lots of curry powder and salt) and focused my attention on my fusion cheeseburger.
It wasn’t the beef (tough from being overworked) or the bun (full of air) that was responsible for the addictive powers of this burger.
It was the condiments – raw and fried bits of onion and alternating squirts of curried mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles and mustard – that made it great.
Close to my last bite, an all-male gypsy band (accordion, sax and bongo drum) set up camp in front of the casino next door to Cem’s and belted out a version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ that turned every head on the sidewalk. I gave them all my coins.
Cem’s Burger House – Map it
Reichenberger Str. 174, 10999 Berlin (Kreuzberg, Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn)
Tel. 030 61 67 14 49
Hours: Mo – Sa: 10:00am – 3:00am; Sun: 12:00 – 0:00
Recommended dishes: Hamburger (1.90 Euro) or cheeseburger (2.20 Euro). You can also get XL and XXL burgers for a few more Eurocents – and they offer a ‘Burger Menu’ with fries and a drink for 4.30.
Note: The Kottbusser Tor Cem’s is the original location, established in 2006. They recently opened a second shop at Bergmannstraße 12, also in Kreuzberg.