Berlin has many good things going for it, but it must be said that gastronomy was not always one of them. When I first moved here more than eight years ago, multicultural dining was far from being in vogue. There were plentiful kebab shops and falafel stands, sure, as well as some Vietnamese eateries who all served variations of the same thing, cheap sushi and Indian restaurants serving the blandest curries you can imagine. In recent years, however, Berlin’s food scene has (thankfully) expanded by leaps and bounds.
The fastest-growing dining trend around these parts is East Asian cuisine – by far. It’s a development I’ve noted with greedy pleasure, because having grown up in China and Taiwan, nothing makes my belly quite as happy as the food from that corner of the world. And it seems I’m not alone: As plentiful new restaurant openings will attest, Berliners can’t get enough of Japanese and Korean cuisine these days. One of the newcomers that leapt to popular status practically overnight is Ssam, a Korean barbecue joint that opened in Kreuzberg late last year (Kottbusser Damm 96). The sizeable menu has pretty much all the Korean specialties – bibimbap rice bowls, spicy jigae stew with kimchi – but the specialty is the barbecue. Pork belly, squid, beef ribs, or chicken are cooked on a sizzling grill set into the table top, then wrapped up in lettuce leaves and eaten with the fingers.
Predating Ssam by half a year was Gogogi, another Korean place with a similar concept (table-top barbecue, hip and minimalist décor) but with a location in Mitte (Weinbergsweg 24). Set just off bustling Rosenthaler Platz, this low-lit, sleekly decorated restaurant takes pride in sourcing top-quality ingredients and making its sauces and kimchi by hand. I was impressed by the bibimbap I had here, which came in a sizzling-hot dolsot stone bowl, topped with tender beef and a glistening raw egg yolk to be stirred into the hot rice.
If fusion flavours are more your thing, local restaurateurs have taken it upon themselves to play around freely with Asian culinary influences. Fräulein Kimchi, for example, is a Prenzlauer Berg eatery that serves ‘Korean-American soul food’ like kimchi and cheese nachos, Korean tacos, and a fun ‘ramenburger’ that replaces the traditional patty with slow-cooked Korean beef and the bun with two rounds of crispy ramen noodles (Kollwitzstr. 46). Similarly, Pacifico in Kreuzberg makes fresh, fast-food-style ‘buns & bowls’ with Californian-Korean flair. The kimcheezy burger with egg, kimchi and cheddar is a perennial favourite, as are the sweet potato French fries topped with marinated bulgogi beef and – you guessed it – more kimchi.
The ramen trend has been going strong for a couple years now (Cocolo remains unbeaten as the best place in town), but one of my favourite food discoveries of 2015 was Udon Kobo Ishin, which puts another Japanese noodle, udon, in the limelight (Litfaß-Platz 1). The homemade noodles are cooked to chewy perfection and can be ordered either in giant bowls of slurp-worthy broth, or chilled and served with a side of dipping sauce.
Another new Japanese restaurant broadening Berliners’ horizons beyond sushi is Ushido, which bills itself as the first restaurant in Berlin to specialize in yakiniku grilling (Lychener Str. 18). Similarly to Korean barbecue, a gas grill is set into the table and self-serve cooking is part of the experience. Unlike Korean grilling, however, the meat usually goes on the grill plain and sauce-free so that nothing gets in the way of the meaty flavour. Splurge on the wagyu beef, which is unbeatably rich and tender thanks to heavy fat marbling.
The calibre of Chinese food in Berlin has not quite kept up with Japanese and Korean, in my opinion, but Da Jia Le is where I go whenever I need my fix of dumplings, Sichuan chili beef, spicy stewed tofu and noodles laced in peanut sauce (Goebenstr. 23). The owners didn’t put much weight on hipness and trendiness when it comes to either location or décor, but they more than make up for the lack of ambiance with their warm hospitality and uncompromisingly delicious cooking. I always walk away from here stuffed and happy, and I think it’s safe to say you will as well.
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