Something remarkable happened on the way to the movies a few weeks ago: Rumen and I hopped in a cab with a driver named Aziz – who used to make his living selling pieces of the Berlin Wall, and who’s been driving a taxi for 16 years — on Frankfurter Allee in Friedrichshain.
The next night, walking home from Imren Grill, the (wonderful) döner kebab parlor Aziz recommended in Neukölln, who did we spot dropping off a trio of passengers on Wühlichstrasse? AZIZ. He was as surprised as we were – and he gave us two more food recommendations. He also offered to take us the rest of the way home, which we politely declined – he was working, after all. Luckily some passengers approached his cab needing to go to the airport, which saved us from feeling guilty about him giving us a free ride. But the three of us parted on good terms, glad, full of wonder, as Aziz drove away, continuing with his shift.
Over the eight years I’ve been doing these taxi adventures, a lot of people have asked me if I’ve ever run into the same taxi driver twice. It never happened, until I met Aziz.
Though the two places he recommended when we met Aziz that second time weren’t quite as good as Imren Grill, I was happy to try them anyway. Even if the food was more solid than stellar, eating at Doyum Grillhaus and Mercan Restaurant seemed like something more than a lucky coincidence. It felt like continuation of an unlikely story, a story you might not believe if I made it up.
Lahmajun (Turkish pizza) is what Aziz likes to order at this grill house near the epicenter of Berlin’s Little Istanbul district, at the foot of a run-down concrete apartment complex on Admiralstrasse. Doyum is the kind of place I’ve cycled past maybe a hundred times, thinking I should try it. I’ve always liked the makeshift look of the dining room – ornate tiles on one wall, fake beige bricks on the other — and the looks on the faces of the cooks in the semi-open kitchen, who seem more amused than overwhelmed, even when they get busy.
When I finally walked into Doyum the first thing I smelled was burning dough. The first thing I saw was a refrigerator case full of kebabs of various shapes and sizes, waiting for the charcoal grill. There were more staff than customers: I counted 7 cooks in the kitchen and 2 waiters working the floor. The reason for this, as far as I could tell from spending half an hour or so in the dining room, is that most customers order their food – especially döner kebab or lahmajun — to go.
The lahmajun I tried here had the best topping of any lahmajun I’ve tasted so far in Berlin – besides the usual meat and red peppers, there were finely-diced tomatoes and green peppers and just enough heat. But it tasted twice-baked, which meant the dough couldn’t compare to the baked-to-order versions at Imren or Boğaziçi (where they bake their lahmajun in a brick oven).
I can’t tell you why I ordered fried artichokes instead of some kind of kebab to go with my lahmajun, but I can tell you it was a poor choice. I love almost anything deep-fried and I love artichokes, but these heavily breaded ones tasted like something you could only truly appreciate if you were drunk.
If you decide to visit Doyum, and if you want to have a great lahmajun experience, I’d say you should only order it here if you see someone rolling dough to order. I know this might not be realistic — so I’d also say you might want try something from the grill, like their Adana kebab, which is rumored to be some of the best in Berlin.
Admiralstraße 36, 10999 Berlin – Kreuzberg
Tel. 030 61656127
I thought it a little odd when Aziz couldn’t tell us what exactly it was he liked to eat at Mercan until I got there and realized there isn’t really a menu. Like the cantinas of Istanbul, Mercan serves a rotating selection of 8-9 hot dishes, with rice or bulgur wheat on the side, at an extremely reasonable price.
For seven euros, you can get one hot dish of your choice, plus rice or bulgur, salad and bread. The nine-euro ‘Mix Menu’ gets you two hot dishes and all those sides. It’s a feast fit for a taxi driver. Or anyone in a hurry and in need of a hot meal.
At Mercan, women do the cooking and dish up the food while men wait tables. I noticed quite a few single men having dinner here — in spite of the the cloudy freshwater fish tank, the fluorescent track lights, and the royal purple vinyl chairs, the dining room feels cozy and welcoming, not to mention unpretentious.
Besides the fact that it came to the table less than 5-minutes after I ordered it, my favorite part of my 9-euro feast was the bulgur wheat on the side: fluffy, al dente, mixed with tomato paste and plenty of red chili pepper. Neither meatballs in yogurt sauce nor cumin-infused sausage with potatoes approached the deliciously aggressive seasoning of that bulgur wheat – and I should have known better than to order a tomato and pepper salad in November.
Still, I’ll be going back to Mercan. The food may be more above average than outstanding, but the price is right, and I’ve yet to find a better Istanbul-style cafeteria in Berlin. Plus – who knows? I just might run into Aziz.
Wiener Straße 10, 10999 Berlin – Kreuzberg
Tel. 030 61285841
Open: 7 days, 11am-10pm