I knew nothing about the Vietnamese diaspora in Germany before I came to Berlin, much less about its impact on the city’s food scene. It was thanks to Rumen and Yüko — two taxi drivers with a soft spot for curry and chilies and peanut sauce — that I learned about the good Vietnamese food here during my first summer in the city. I thought of it as one of the few happy consequences of the Cold War.
Fast forward five years: Berlin remains home to one of the largest expatriate Vietnamese communities in the world, the number of Vietnamese restaurants in the city continues to multiply, and I still feel a particular kind of thrill whenever a taxi driver tells me about a Vietnamese restaurant I haven’t tried yet, as I did when Dirk mentioned Onkel Ho.
A restaurant the cabby found through “coincidence and hunger”, Onkel Ho, which takes its name from a famous song about Ho Chi Minh, is one of Dirk’s six favorite places to eat in the city. It’s also just around the corner from where he lives, in Prenzlauer Berg.
Unlike many/most of the Vietnamese places in Berlin, Onkel Ho is not an Imbiss (snack bar), neither in appearance nor on the menu. Here, the lighting flatters, the music is deep house, the bar serves lychee fruit cocktails, and there’s a special cushion-lined, candlelit area with low tables for people who like to sit on the floor while they eat.
You won’t find red curry with coconut milk (the equivalent of sweet-and-sour pork at a Chinese restaurant in the U.S.) here. Instead, there are four or five daily specials that draw inspiration from regional dishes in north, middle and south Vietnam, plus five different kinds of pho (noodle soup) — all of it, according to Onkel Ho’s website, prepared without MSG, “und mit traditionellen Gewürzen und frischem vietnamesischen Kräutern zubereitet werden” (with traditional spices and fresh Vietnamese herbs). So far, so good, right?
I’m sorry to report that, for all the build-up and implied seriousness around the food, everything I tasted on two separate trips to Onkel Ho was under-seasoned and unremarkable. Yes, I went twice, because I wanted to believe the kitchen was having a bad night on my first visit — but that doesn’t seem to be the case here:
- Pho – beef noodle soup – comes to you already garnished, which takes a lot of the fun out of eating it. (To be fair, this happens at a lot of Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin, but it’s harder to forgive at Onkel Ho, where they’re charging 2 Euros more than most places, and where the broth could really use a squeeze of lime and a few more chili peppers).
- Summer rolls are so full of rice vermicelli I can’t remember anything else that was in them.
- Green curry with chicken and coconut milk is loaded with lemongrass but also with sugar, and very short on heat. I don’t know about you, but I pretty much want to be ravished when I eat curry, no matter what color it is: I want my lips to burn, my eyes to tear, my forehead to drip, all dormant taste buds shaken out of hibernation. These might be unreasonable expectations, but I’d hoped I could entertain them here. Not so.
What’s going on at Onkel Ho? Where are the dishes that generated all those rave reviews on the walls, not to mention Dirk’s endorsement? Is this a simple case of a restaurant resting on its laurels, or is there something else at work here?
Meanwhile, I’m still looking forward to following up on the rest of Dirk’s restaurant tips (and I’ll always be grateful to him for sending me to Balkçi Ergun). If you’re in Berlin and would like to try out his favorite Croatian, Indian and/or Lebanese places with me, send me an email. Who knows what we’ll taste?
10437 Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg
Tel.: 030 44 356 379 (Reservations recommended at dinnertime)
Note: Visit Hamy or Sen Viet, Rumen’s and Yüko’s recommendations, respectively, if you’re looking for solid Vietnamese food in Berlin. Both are cabby-friendly, snack-bar type places that serve good curry and have a better price/quality ratio than Onkel Ho. And if you have a favorite Vietnamese place in the city, by all means let us know about it.