After almost a year of driving a taxi in New York City (getting lost in the Bronx, getting in trouble with the NYPD, chauffeuring everyone from hysterical brides to pastrami seekers), I picked up a copy of David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries: “Berlin is lovely in the summer and there’s lots to see,” he wrote, “The food is great — not as exclusively pork and potato oriented as it used to be (though some of the traditional food is delicious.)”
After reading something between Byrne’s lines, and after a Lonely Planet writer told me that Berlin taxi drivers knew “as much about sausage as they do about Nietzsche,” I decided to take Taxi Gourmet to the German capital.
A few weeks in Berlin were enough to prove the Lonely Planet writer right: cabbies were as well versed in philosophy as they were in food. But besides leading me to the best sausage and strangolapreti and künefe in town, taxi drivers like Heiko Janssen also introduced me to their changing city.
Originally from Aurich, a German town of 20,000 in Eastern Friesland, on the North Sea coast near the border with the Netherlands, Heiko came to Berlin in 1988, a year before the Wall came down, “when West Berlin was more like an island for all the freaks from West Germany, for the outcasts of society.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Heiko joined the squatter movement in East Berlin, did odd jobs and started working on getting his taxi-driving license. It took him several years because “it was too easy in the 90s. Life was really cheap. Beer and food were cheap.”
Meanwhile, eating habits were changing as fast as everything else in Berlin. Taxi drivers like Heiko, whose favorite meal was sausage, potatoes and sauerkraut, started diving into new dishes like Syrian falafel and Thai green curry.
But Heiko held on to some flavors from his home town, especially after he became a cab driver: three times a day, like all East Frieslanders, he drinks at least three cups of Assam-Darjeeling black tea with kluntjes (a rock candy sweetener). Thanks to its seafaring tradition and historic trade with England and the Netherlands, Janssen explained, his region is the only one in Germany with a well-developed tea culture.
As a night driver with an encyclopedic knowledge of the club scene in Berlin, Heiko needs his tea. Before he gets in his taxi, he reads the papers and scans the Internet for fashion, film, and especially music events. Music is his greatest passion.
Heiko, who occasionally works as a DJ at Antje Öklesund (a gallery that a friend opened seven years ago) and is one of two personal cab drivers for the doorman at the world-famous Berghain techno club, drives his cab for the most part to support his love for music. Music is what brought him to Berlin in the 80s, and as much as the city has changed, it’s still making more music than he can listen to: “You can go to a concert once a week in Berlin,” he said, “You have so much.”
Music is also what led the taxi driver to W-Der Imbiss, the so-called snack bar on the border between the once-grungy now-fashionable East Berlin neighborhoods of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, where the taxi driver sat down for lunch with me.
From 2004-2006, Heiko drove his cab and moonlighted at Staalplaat, an avant-garde record label based in Amsterdam that was trying to gain a foothold in Berlin.
When Staalplaat musicians came to Berlin to give concerts, the cabbie broke bread with them at W-Der Imbiss. Back then, the restaurant limited its menu to two or three Indian-inspired dishes a day.
Since Heiko’s days at Staalplaat, W-Der Imbiss has undergone a major renovation. The tiki masks and the logo – the McDonald’s golden arches turned upside-down – are the same as the taxi driver remembers. But the menu has yielded to the new trendiness of the restaurant’s surroundings: besides the Indian subji curry that he wanted me to taste, W-Der Imbiss now offers house-made naan bread pizzas, wok dishes, wraps, soups, salads, and ‘tiki tapas’ that range from grilled goat cheese to kim chi.
W-Der Imbiss may be cooking up fancy fast food now, but Canadian chef and owner Gordon W, who pops up in the open kitchen from time to time, hasn’t forgotten that he’s catering to Western Europe’s most wallet-friendly capital: the most expensive rice bowl on his menu costs 8.50 Euros.
Not only is the place is still cheap enough for a cab driver, but its Indian subji curry (6.50 Euros) was even better than Heiko remembered. Broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, red and green peppers were crisp and colorful, even as they absorbed the spices from their light yellow curry sauce. Made to order, topped with a handful of fresh cilantro, and served with basmati rice and yogurt, the only thing missing in this curry was a little chili pepper heat.
We weren’t as impressed with red lentil soup (5 Euros, with a side of naan), which was spicy enough but short on aromatics. But the side of naan bread – brushed with ghee (clarified butter) and sprinkled with sesame, dried cilantro and thyme – was perfection from the tandoori oven: chewy, soft and still warm.
Naan pizzas are the most popular item on W-Der Imbiss’ post-renovation menu. A few bites of olive naan (6 Euros), topped with house-made olive paste, sun-dried tomatoes, parmesan cheese and fresh arugula, helped us understand why.
W-Der Imbiss is just one example of how much Berlin has transformed over the twenty-plus years since the fall of the Wall: fast food is getting fancier, squat houses are disappearing, and underground clubs are becoming more and more difficult to find. But for Heiko, “The city still has more possibilities than any other German city, more possibilities for experience.”
“Berlin changes all the time,” the taxi driver said, taking a last bite of curry, “Luckily.”
W – Der Imbiss
Kastanienallee 49, 10119 Berlin (Mitte)
Open: 7 days, noon-midnight
Eat this: Indian subji curry, 6.50 Euro; Olive naan, 6 Euro