April 06, 2011

Jesus Loves Kimchi

Ixthys - Schöneberg

Let’s talk about the concept of a hole-in-the-wall: shops of miniscule proportions that often combine a run-down urban charm with industrously independent character. To put it more bluntly: they are family run dumps. Some people love them; others would never set foot past their mangy thresholds.

My father is a sterling example of a holes-in-the-wall-enthusiast. You can’t really blame him for it either. There is something authentically appealling about these urban grottos. Eating in a hole-in-the-wall, you realise you are in it for the food. Most people will not be there for the superb ambience generated by the fat stains, the old cutlery or the lack of space (my father might, but I hope you will allow me to politely sneer at the idea). With a hole-in-the-wall, you get the feeling you know where the food comes from – if only because you can see the kitchen behind the counter with your own eyes. And then, you know who does the cooking, sometimes you can even talk to them. It is small enough to see past the “business” character and be admitted into a family. Take a closer look and you’ll see it is a bit like paying a random grandmother to cook for you, and just like with your own grandmother, you’ll get the food directly from that battered aluminium pan into an old plate adorned by a decade-old scratch on the side.

Holes-in-the-wall can be either extremely good or extremely bad, and it is impossible to know which one it will be in advance. And then, the really good ones have a psychologial added value. Having a truly delicious meal in a grotto equals a major discovery. It makes you feel like a 2011 urban version of Christopher Columbus, sailing in the dagerous waters of a big city (because let’s face it: holes-in-the-wall are an inherently urban phenomenon), trying to immerse yourself in the local structure and culture, unlike all those lard assed tourists who just go to Starbucks’ because they know what they’ll get over there.

Berlin has less holes-in-the-wall than cities like New York or London because – let’s face it – there is no need for any. The spaces here are usually large and often affordable. Squeezing a restaurant into a lightless cell of 100 square feet is entirely unnecessary. Which was why I had to raise an eyebrow when I had walked into Ixthys, a Korean place in Schöneberg. Alright, I did not only raise an eyebrow, I was overwhelmed and did not know whether to laugh, cry or run for my life. The place was not only a classical hole-in-the-wall, but it was a missionary one at that. Ixthys is not a word in Korean, but rather the Greek name for “fish” and an early Christian symbol. The walls are completely covered with old and dirty canvases crammed with handwritten psalms and biblical texts. The small space is not unpleasant, but for a non-believer such as myself, it was nothing less than frightening (with a pinch of exotism).

The menu did not provide much relief either. The textual treasures hidden under the layers of grease referred more often to Jesus than to food. The last page was a highlight of sorts, as it started out explaining kimchi’s merits, describing to what extent the Korean cabbage dish can improve one’s health, just to recap and decide that end the end of the day, the “richest ingredient in life” was really just the love of the Lord. Yeah, right. The added value of the Christian faith was soon forgotten, as we finally found the food references. It did not take long to realise that the choice of dishes was astonishingly promising despite its being very limited. The menu was comprised of about five vegetarian and five meat dishes, and they all sounded good.

The walls...
We then ordered the Za-Chang-Myun (a noodle dish with bean sauce, pork and various vegetables, 7.50 €), the Doesi Bul-Go-Gi (pork and onions in a spicy sauce, 7.00 €) and the Bibim-Bab (a “mix it yourself” dish with beef, rice, vegetables and a fried egg, all the joy in the world for 7.50 €). The dishes came with a side of kimchi, which was very convincing (yet not as good as the one at Madang). It would probably be best to start describing the Bul-Go-Gi, which was tasty, but not too inspiring. The meat was nice, the sauce was extremely pleasing, but nothing more, really. The noodle dish was definitely a couple of notches superior. Not only was the noodle-quality superb, but the sauce was just brilliant. It was refined and exciting at the same time, with random slices of meat and vegetables to chew on (which were fine, but still secondary to that fantastic bean sauce).

Delicious bibimbab

And then came the bibimbab. Alright, I might be biased. I believe bibimbab is one of the things Adam and Eve managed to smuggle out of the Garden of Eden and then went on to hide somewhere in Korea so that God wouldn’t find it and punish them. I think Bibimbab is pure joy and good bibimbab is a virtue. And this one was definitely good. Everything in it was just right: the meat, the vegetables, the quantity and the spicy sauce (which was served in a large, filthy jar, which was so much more pleasing than the embarrassingly small quantity seen elsewhere around here).

Needless to say, we did not stay too long. I did not mind the Christian theme as much as I was bothered by the uncomfortable chairs and the lack of basic facilities (yes, I mean the loo. For a place that offers tea on its menu, not having any toilets can be equated with crime). After a while we just had to go. And yet, I can only recommend Ixthys warmly. As far as holes-in-the-wall go, this one was just perfect, with the best possible value: good quality food for affordable prices.

Overall mark: 

Pallasstraße 21, 10781 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 814 747 69

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