A burly, broad-shouldered man with a mop of black-brown curls who might be in his early 50s, Osman maneuvers his taxi with a light touch, like a piano player who enjoys an easy relationship with the keys.
The expression on his face is not the expression you would expect of a man who’s been driving a cab for 20 years: bright-eyed, open, jolly, smiling as if whomever happened to land in his back seat could only add to his existing happiness. His lines really do appear to be laugh lines. His eyebrows, full, dark but graying at both ends, do not rise and fall, but rise and rise as he grows more interested in what you have to say.
Twenty-five years ago, “just after the Wall came down,” Osman moved to Berlin from Izmir, a port city on Turkey’s Aegean coast, to start a family. Every June, he drives back to Izmir with his wife and two now-teenage children, where they spend two months with his extended family — and eat at all their favorite restaurants.
“I can’t tell you what they’re called,” he said, as we drove from Alexanderplatz to Kreuzberg, with the heater going full-blast and the passenger-side window rolled down. “I can only take you there if you come to Izmir.”
I laughed, and we kept talking, but despite his friendliness, and despite us agreeing on the potential culinary savvy of cab drivers, Osman was similarly cryptic when I asked him about his favorite places to eat in Berlin. “But what about you?” he smiled. “Where do you like to eat döner?”
I told him I liked Hasir on Nollendorfplatz, even though their sauces are too sweet — one of the few places in the city where they don’t add soy product to the meat.
He nodded, satisfied, as if I’d made it past some intangible marker. We drove on, discussing döner — the greatness of Mustafa’s on Mehringdamm, the solidity of Imren Grill on Boppstrasse — and as we got closer to where he was dropping me off, on Prinzenstrasse, I (gently) denied his claims that I knew more about restaurants than he did and tried to make peace with the idea that this was as far as our food conversation was going.
“What about raki?” he said, slowing down as he merged into the traffic circle at Moritzplatz. “Do you like raki?”
“Oh, yes!” Raki, rakia, ouzo – any Balkan firewater seems to put me in an unusually good mood.
His already raised eyebrows went up a little further. “Where did you drink raki?”
Was he still testing me? “At Adana Grill Haus,” I said, looking at him in the rear view mirror. “On Manteuffelstrasse.” I paused. “A taxi driver told me about it.”
A glimmer of curiosity, or bewilderment, passed through his eyes. He hit the brakes on Prinzenstrasse, asking me to hand him my notebook, chuckling as he wrote down the names of “the number one places in town” for lahmajun (Turkish, or Armenian, pizza) and Izmir-style köfte (meatballs).
There may be as much bad lahmajun in Berlin as there is bad pizza, but not, Osman assured me, at Boğaziçi in Moabit: Here, they make their flatbread from scratch and bake it to order in a clay oven (see the photo at the top of this post).
What comes out is a wafer-thin, beautifully blistered, generously topped disc of dough that makes a good snack for 1.50 euro — or a great snack, when you squeeze lemon and sprinkle chili over it before you roll it up and eat it like a burrito.
For all the effort they put into their lahmajun, Boğaziçi doesn’t make any mention of it on its website — there, won’t find anything about Turkish pizza, or borek, or mercimek corbasi, or any of its other savory dishes. On the internet, this place appears to specialize in one thing and one thing only: genuine Antep baklava, made from certified Gaziantep pistachios.
Though it’s some of the better baklava I’ve tasted in Berlin, though it won a DLG-German Agricultural Society Prize in 2015, though Boğaziçi claims its baklava is the best in town, it wasn’t as delicious as I’d hoped. Yes, they’re using wonderful Gaziantep pistachios, but they’re smothering them in way too much sugar syrup — the flavor of the nuts gets lost in all that sweetness.
10551 Berlin-Tiergarten (Moabit)
Telefon: +49 (0)30 – 39 52 932
Open: Daily, from 7am-2:30am
Recommended dishes: Lahmajun, mercimek corbasi (red lentil soup), ayran (salted yogurt drink made in house – check out the churning machine at the entrance to the kitchen)
Osman has been stopping at Konak Grill for köfte for 15 of the 20 years he’s been driving a taxi in Berlin. For him, there is no better köfte in the city, not even at Gel Gör.
So I had high expectations when I showed up at this snack bar, on a rainy Friday afternoon, just before the dinner rush — and I had to smile when I noticed the taxicab parked outside, and the disparities in the crowd inside: Turkish matrons in head scarves toting plastic bags of produce, men in skinny jeans swiping their iPhones, teenagers with rolling suitcases who might have been coming from the train station.
There might be as many styles of köfte in Turkey as there are sausage in Germany – every region has its own recipe. At Gel Gör, they make İnegöl köfte, allegedly invented by a Bulgarian immigrant to the northwestern Turkish province of Bursa — in its most traditional form, İnegöl is a simple mixture of beef (80%), lamb (20%), grated onion and no additional spices.
At Konak, they make their köfte in the style of Osman’s home region of Izmir, with beef, breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, parsley, red pepper and cumin. For all of this additional seasoning, the flavor of their sausage seemed subtler than that at Gel Gör – maybe because they don’t use lamb.
Still, I liked Konak’s köfte – especially with the dried thyme and savory the grill master sprinkled over it just before he served it to me. But I think I liked the salad on the side even more – a super-fresh, carefully arranged pile of red onion, tomato, cucumber, greens and radish embellished with lots of sumac.
What I also like about Konak: they specialize in just two things, although they offer them in a multitude of forms. You have your choice of köfte (what they call Grillboulette, or grilled meatballs, though they look more like sausage than meatballs), or Fleischspies (shish kebab), served in a regular, large or extra-large sandwich, or on a regular, large, or extra-large plate with rice. For vegetarians, there’s halloumi (brined cheese, grilled), either in a sandwich or on a platter. For everyone, there is sweat-inducing spicy sauce and a garlic sauce with an artificial tinge that reminded me of the white sauce at street carts like the Famous Halal Guys in New York City.
Reichenberger Str. 10, 10999 Berlin (Kreuzberg)
Phone: 030-615 92 66
Open: Mon-Wed, 10:30am-02:30am, Thurs, 10:30am-03:00am; Fri-Sat, 10:30am-04:00am; Sun, 11:30am-02:30am
Recommended: Grillboulette Teller mit alles (Köfte plate with the works)