Before he started driving a taxi 16 years ago, Aziz made his living selling pieces of the Berlin Wall.
From 1990 to 1995 — his first years in Berlin — he manned a souvenir stand at Brandenburg Gate, learning German, observing the tourists, watching some of his Wall-selling colleagues become millionaires. They were better merchants than he was. They were also selling fur hats from Russia.
“The city is strange,” he said, as we drove through the evening mist, heading west on Karl-Marx-Allee.
“All cities are strange,” said Rumen.
“What do you mean strange?” I said.
The two cab drivers just laughed.
Before he’d picked us up outside the Ring Center on Frankfurter Allee, Aziz, a slight man in his early fifties who explained that his full beard was a product of laziness rather than religious devotion, had spent three hours driving from west to east, trying to find a hotel room for a fare who hadn’t slept in 20 hours. “Hotels, hotels, hotels!” he said, shaking his head, “That’s all they build now. How can all of them be full?”
None of us knew the answer. We rounded the traffic circle at Strausberger Platz, where the fountain in the center had been turned off for the night. Aziz told us about his family: his two children, a son and a daughter, are grown, thank God, because not long ago he’d divorced his wife of 18 years. She’s Turkish, born in Berlin. She never understood that driving a taxi wasn’t an 8-hour-a-day kind of job.
He spoke quickly, though not without effort, yanking words together, not bothering with pronouns or verb conjugations. “I didn’t study,” he said. “I don’t have a profession. That’s why my German is so terrible. Everything I learned, I learned on the street.”
“And,” he added, sitting up straighter on his sheepskin seat cover, winking at us in the rear view mirror through his wire-rimmed glasses, “In the taxi.”
You could say Aziz was more than receptive when we asked him, not long before he dropped us off at Rosa Luxemburg Platz, about his favorite place to eat in Berlin: “Of course taxi drivers know where the good food is,” he grinned. “And the cheap food!” Had we tried Hasir? Of course we had. Ok, then – how about the pide at Imren Grill, in Neukölln? They make it by hand, right before your eyes…
There was a long line at the counter when Rumen and I showed up at Imren 24 hours later, which was no surprise: If you live in Berlin and you love döner kebab, you’ve heard of Imren. Since its founding in 1993, it’s been consistently ranked among best places in town for döner. They now have six locations, none of which serve alcohol or play music, all of which offer free black tea and marinate their own meat. The one on Karl-Marx-Strasse in Neukölln is the fourth of the six to open.
One thing that struck us as we waited to place our order, besides the (convivial) madness in the heavily staffed kitchen — and the baker in the headscarf in the middle of the madness, rolling his dough as though standing in the eye of a storm – were all the signs on the wall, instructing patrons on everything from how to make tea to how to behave properly (“If you’re on your cell phone, don’t order!” “We thank you for cleaning up for the next guest.”). I thought this was the most impressive sign of all:
Translation: “Döner meat – 100% beef with lamb fat.” In a city where 90% (my unscientific estimate) of the döner is full of soy and artificial flavor enhancers and goodness knows what else, a place that’s making its döner Yaprak-style (i.e. the natural, more labor-intensive way) is something to celebrate.
And though we liked Aziz’s pide (hand-made, but twice-baked, and a bit plain – we wished we’d ordered the one with spinach or ground beef instead of just cheese), and Imren’s lahmajun (Turkish pizza, recently rolled, freshly baked, nicely blistered on the bottom, subtly seasoned on top), we liked Imren’s döner most of all.
Not only do they care enough to make their kebab Yaprak-style, but they don’t over-sweeten their sauces or overdo it on the fixings – in almost every bite of Spezial Dürüm Döner, which they serve on house-made flatbread, you get a bite of meat with your lettuce and tomato and onions.
(Note: If you want the full-fledged döner experience at Imren, order the 4-euro Spezial Dürüm Döner. The regular döner comes on store-bought flatbread, and the shawerma has the same filling, but gets served in store-bought pita – not worth the 1 euro or 1.50 euro you’ll save.)
To be continued…
Telephone: 030 / 43027868
Open: 7 days, from 9am-3am