Everyone who sets foot in Berlin with high hopes of good eats comes across it at some point: a blog post by one Tyler Cowen, claiming to have written the definitive guide on How to Eat Well in Berlin. "If the food is supposed to be spicy," he entreats, "you must repeat the following incantation several times: 'I want to eat it exactly as you eat it at home. I am not a German.' Repeat especially that last part: 'Ich bin kein deutscher.'
I tried to remember these magic words as I made my first visit to Tian Fu, a Sichuan restaurant in the west Berlin neighborhood of Wilmersdorf. I'd had enough disappointing experiences seeking heat in Berlin that I didn't believe there was anywhere that could offer the vibrant spice I was looking for. After I repeated exactly what Cowen had recommended, the waiter looked at my group strangely. His face said, "you really want this? Well, then, okay!" When the food arrived and we nonchalantly took our first bites, the table went quiet. We glanced around at each other with bright red, sweaty, surprised faces, unable to say a word.
We learned something important that day, trying not to look too obvious as we asked for another pitcher of water, more side orders of rice. Despite Berlin's reputation as the capital of mild, the epicenter of inauthentic Asian food, there was a layer of not just acceptable, but actually good Asian restaurants lurking just below the bland, curry-covered surface. It had been our fault all along; we hadn't been looking hard enough.
"People are becoming aware that most food served at Asian restaurants here is not necessarily representative of the best that Asian cuisine can offer," says Shanghai-born chef and founder of the Chi Fan supper club Ash Lee. "The street food scene that seems to have exploded here recently has helped generate some genuine interest in Asian food, and now people are looking harder. That can only be a good thing!"
True, many short-term visitors to Berlin are probably more interested in trying schnitzel than Teigtaschen (literally "dough pockets"—a very German word for dumplings), but once visitors stay a bit longer, a yearning for legit food from around the world starts to set in. The street food trend Lee mentions is merely one offshoot—one example of non-Germans determined to educate picky Berlin eaters, who have a reputation for being unadventurous, about international food cultures—but there is more to it than that. Berlin may not have been known for good Chinese, Japanese, or Thai food in the past, but today, young people from all over have converged on Berlin as the next great world city, and they're hungry for mapo tofu, for sour plum-stuffed onigiri, for fiery papaya salad, and more.
"I think young people in Berlin have started to realize that seeking out authentic international food is something that brands them as educated, worldly, well-travelled, and discerning," explained food and culture journalist Hilda Hoy, former editor of the popular local newsletter Sugarhigh, who has crowned herself the 'dumpling queen of Berlin.' "But I do think the internationalization, or maybe I should say the expat-ization of Berlin, definitely has a role to play."
Lee, for one, was eager to play her own role: "The first time I sat in a 'Chinese restaurant' in Berlin, I thought, 'this is not what we eat in China; I need to let Germans taste what real Chinese food is.'" With an ever increasing number of enterprising young chefs and food lovers like Lee and Hoy moving to Berlin, the quality and variety is only improving. Still, it can be difficult at a glance to know which places are the real deal and which, in Hoy's words, are merely "polished, trendy, overpriced, ultra-slick pan-Asian places." But luckily, there are far more to choose from than there used to be, many of them just now gaining the exposure they so richly deserve. If you're craving legit Asian food in Berlin—dishes you fear aren't anywhere to be found in the city—here's where to go.
For Classic Jiaozi: Wok Show
Wok Show is tucked into a relatively untraversed part of Prenzlauer Berg—so far from the typical tourist haunts of the neighborhood that it's never packed. There are a lot of strange, Westernized versions of Chinese food here, a typical Berlin move meant to please the German palate, but keep to the front of the menu for authentic appetizers. Don't miss the irregular chunks of cucumber with garlic and crispy bird's eye chilies, tofu skins mixed with spongy wheat gluten, soybean and bamboo slivers in a sweet, rich soy sauce, or the cubed, chilled tofu topped with scallions and dried shrimp.
Once you're ready to move onto the coveted jiaozi, you'll only have to remember one thing: they're all good. You can order them boiled (soft, slippery, and juicy) or pan-fried (crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside), either 20 or 40 at a time. Get 40 dumplings for two people: you'll be surprised how quickly they disappear. If your waitress doesn't bring it automatically, make sure to ask for the tangy black vinegar to dip your dumplings in (for added confusion, it will come in a standard Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, even though it...isn't soy sauce). Dip. Devour. Repeat.
For Onigiri and Soba: Heno Heno
On the other side of town, Heno Heno is a quiet, consistently tasty option for cheap Japanese eats. A self-billed imbiss(or 'snack bar'), this tiny joint sits on the far western edge of Kantstrasse. With its six-seat counter, low, rickety tables, and a wooden sign tacked above the entrance, Heno Heno is about the closest you'll get to a true hole-in-the-wall dining experience when it comes to eating Japanese food in Berlin.
Order one of four onigiri (rice balls), filled with sour umeboshi (pickled plum) or salmon, and they will be slipped over the counter on a tiny, nubby ceramic plate. These slightly warm, rounded ovals of rice are wrapped in a single crisp sheet of seaweed, the first bite yielding a solid crunch before the teeth sink into the satisfying, slightly tangy chewiness of the rice.
Main dishes include two kinds of noodles, soba and udon, either in broth or served cold in summer, and two rice bowl options with toppings like pickled ginger or poached egg. For a satisfying main course, order a soba noodle soup with beef (Rindfleisch in German). It will arrive with slivers of spring onion, and seaweed that practically dissolves into the bowl as you stir, adding a slight fishiness to broth. The curled slices of beef are slightly charred and lightly sweet, and the noodles are pleasantly chewy and rough-textured enough that they don't slide out of the chopsticks' grip.
For Taiwanese Gua Bao and Noodle Soup: Lon-Men's Noodle House
In a small storefront on Kantstrasse, you'll find Lon-Men's Noodle House, the only Taiwanese restaurant in Berlin. Their succulent wontons are served in a salty, spicy chili oil so tasty you could drink it right out of the bowl.
The gua bao—springy, yeasty buns filled with either beef or duck, slivered cucumbers, coriander and a squirt of hot sauce—are rightly celebrated. The best of the noodle soups is a Taiwanese classic: beef noodle soup complete with a tangy, earthy broth and thinly sliced beef. The slippery house-made noodles can also be ordered broth-less, instead served with a glistening coat of sesame sauce or a warming, tender meat sauce that is something like a Taiwanese spin on Bolognese. Both are best washed down with a mug of oolong tea.
For Sichuan Spice: Tian Fu
Tian Fu is known as a real tongue scorcher. The only Chinese restaurant in Berlin that will give their customers full-on chili heat without their having to beg for it, this is also the best Sichuan place in town. Tian Fu is the place to go for a festive evening, where you'll be glad to have table companions to share food with, since that means you'll get to try more dishes.
The menu's full-color feature on the hot pot (called the Feuertopf or firepot in German) may make you think it's the only thing to get here, and if you plan on showing up with a crowd, it's a great way to play with your food. But don't ignore the other Sichuan specialties. Cold smoked tofu in sesame sauce, slices of pig's ear with cilantro and chili, and a slippery jellyfish salad chock full of pickled flavor are some of the best on the extensive list of appetizers. Move onto the searingly hot mapo tofu, its slick, almost sweet cubes of tofu offset by the burn of chilies and the telltale numbing of Sichuan pepper, and a dried, crispy beef dish with fried bird's eye chilies that shatter on the tongue. You may need another round of rice.
For Xiao Long Bao: Shaniu's House of Noodles
Quietly dishing up Shanghainese cuisine in a residential part of Wilmersdorf, Shaniu is the place for the beloved Xiao Long Bao. These soup dumplings come petite with the standard twist on top, glistening and ready to be plopped in a dish of tangy Chinkiang black vinegar. The pungent soup inside isn't hot enough to be dangerous, but offers a satisfying layer of slurp in the spoon once the thin but sturdy wrapper has been devoured.
If you've had your fill of dumplings, go for the so-called "spaghetti Chinese style," actually another version of the wonderfully flavorful meat sauce noodles found at Lon-Men's Noodle House. The crew at Shaniu makes the noodles in house, and your waiter will no doubt alert you to the fact that, for an extra €2 and a bit more waiting time, you'll get those instead of the typical dried, store-bought ones. Shaniu's cucumber salad is more garlicky than spicy (add some of the hot chili sauce provided on the side if you like), and a plate of sliced calf's stomach coated in garlic and scallions (Rindermagen) is nearly soft, but with a satisfying chew. If you don't mind sticky fingers, order the glazed beef ribs or the slow-marinated pork belly, both of which are the perfect blend of sweet and savory, the beef falling of the ribs and the pork belly as tender as can be.
For Thai Snacks and Curries: Thai Imbiss am Winterfeldtplatz
The Thai Imbiss am Winterfeldtplatz offers an antidote to the many so-called Thai restaurants in Berlin, most of which advertise sushi and wonton soup along with their sickeningly sweet pad thai knockoffs. This Thai snack-bar-on-wheels was in business long before the Berlin food truck craze began picking up steam, and has gained a loyal following with its fresh, bright curries and salads. Rare is the day you won't have to wait in the longest line at the twice weekly market as the Thai proprietress and her German husband greet regulars, take orders, and operate in a kind of well-choreographed dance to prepare the dishes and hand them over.
The truck's genius is in using ingredients—like lime leaf, curry leaf, and fresh green peppercorns—that are completely foreign to most Berliners and nearly impossible to find anywhere else. Try the Tim Sum: tiny, pinched dumplings filled with pork, chili, and lime leaf, covered in crispy spring onion, and dunked in a sweet and sour, plummy sauce. There's a bright, fresh mango salad, the slippery slices of fruit topped with chili, and a fiery chopped laab moo that will leave you with sweat streaming, sinuses unclogging. The best of the curries is the green curry with chicken, bamboo shoots, and sprigs of peppercorn. If you're looking for something soothing, order the Tom Yum Ga over rice with chicken and vegetables in a rich coconut and lemongrass sauce.
For Green Papaya Salads and Fried Snacks: Thai Park
An open-air gathering of Thai women and their cooking pots that makes up the so-called Thai Park has been one of the best-kept secrets in Berlin since the '90s. The women here are cooking what they cook at home, hoping to trade their best dishes with friends and make a bit of money off the unsuspecting Germans who might happen to wander by. The smell of frying fish and boiling hot noodle soups with fresh ginger, lemongrass, and coriander beckons anyone in the vicinity of Preussenpark, where the gathering takes place every weekend in good weather.
The gimmick, not to mention the sheer variety of authentic Thai snacks, seems to have worked: this is the only place in the city, for example, to get a green papaya salad that, according to the Canadian-Taiwanese Hoy, will "melt your face off." Look for the women hard at work pounding tall wooden mortar-and-pestles to try it: they will make the dish in front of you, mixing in dried shrimp and sometimes tiny whole crabs that end up pulverized. Make sure your chef lets you choose the heat level: in practice this means telling her to keep going when she holds up the slim but dangerous chilies, one by one, and drops them in.
Since this is a casual (and yes, still technically not licensed) forum for Southeast Asian Berliners to meet up, chat with friends, spend time with family, and cook what they love; you'd do best just to show up with a picnic blanket, wander around for a while, make some inquiries, and dive in.
For Pho Bo and Bun Cha: Dong Xuan Center
The Dong Xuan Center is East Berlin's answer to Thai Park, a Vietnamese shopping mall where one of the city's dominant ethnic groups has constructed a sort of alternate universe—one that offers steaming bowls of real pho to Vietnamese expats and anyone else in the know. Dong Xuan exists thanks to the former GDR (German Democratic Republic, more commonly known as East Germany), which made it a policy to hire so-called "guest workers" from friendly socialist states, including North Vietnam. Now Berlin's Vietnamese population numbers in the thousands, according to an article by Slow Travel Berlin, which lists the current number of Dong Xuan employees at about 800.
In addition to long hallways full of shops piled high with cheap clothing, beauty salon equipment, and kitchenware, each of the center's main warehouses has large and welcoming Vietnamese restaurants with banquet-sized tables and sunny terraces. Duc Anh at the entrance of Hall 3 is best of all, with its extensive list of noodle and rice dishes that you can have prepared with your selection of meat, poultry, or tofu. The Pho Bo here comes with a side plate of bright mint, coriander, basil, and shiso, the paper-thin slices of beef still pink in the hot, clear broth. The Bun Cha Nuong Than comes deconstructed: springy rice noodles on one plate, charred and sweetened pork belly slices on another, a bowl of sweet and sour broth, and then the plate of herbs. This is also one of the only places in Berlin serving Vietnamese ice coffee, thickened and sweetened with condensed milk.