August 19, 2011

The Best Burgers in Berlin?

Berliner-Spezial No. 2: A Burger Showdown

Better late than never, I welcome thee to the second Footprint-Berliner-Spezial, and this time it’s about burgers. Burgers, you may ask? Why burgers? The reason is partly because I can and partly because they have become an integral part of Berlin’s fast-food identity.

It all began a few years ago, I am not sure exactly why, but it (rather conveniently) happened just around the time How I Met Your Mother had aired its classic burger episode. To those of you who do not know How I Met Your Mother: I’ll just have to shake my head in disbelief and say I’ve expected more of you. HIMYM is an American sitcom about five friends living and struggling through the Big Apple. As much as a great deal of the series is about the American obsession with dating as a way of life (more on that some other time), other parts of it are just about what makes New York the Greatest City in the Universe (a HIMYM quote, not necessarily the Footprints’ opinion).

Back to the Burger Episode, twenty minutes in which our five main characters run around New York in search of the perfect hamburger. They race between holes in the wall, rant about how burgers used to be better in the past and groan an awful lot (apparently the natural reaction to a really good burger). After watching it, I felt like groaning as well, but at the time, the only hole-in-the-wall in Berlin dedicated to burgers was the Kreuzburger. You could still find good – albeit pricier – burgers in real restaurants, but the very idea of running around in town looking for the best piece of meat in a bun seemed unattainably absurd.

Which is, needless to say, not the case anymore. Holes-in-the-walls dedicated to serving greasy burgers for humane prices have been popping up in Berlin like mushrooms after an autumn shower. If Berlin had its own proper HIMYM (Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten, anyone?*), one could think of shooting a classic burger episode even here.

But until that happens, you will have to be satisfied with Footprints in Berlin rising to the challenge of providing you with a basic guide to burger-holes-in-the-wall in Berlin. Over the last week, I have tried out seven burger institutions all around the city (with the main criterion being price/accessibility – these are NOT restaurants, but burger stands, the Low-Cost of burgers). They were then ranked according to the burger quality (I tried out the cheeseburger and the wedges in each hole-in-the-wall in order to have a fix parameter for comparison). The ONLY real criterion for the ranking was the burgers’ quality (and value). Other factors (like ambiance, service and variety) will be described, but I will try to keep their influence on the actual ranking to a minimum. Now enough chatter. Let’s get down to work: Where can you find the best burgers in Berlin?

Overall Rank: 7: Burgers Berlin, Friedrichshain

If this Berliner-Spezial gave any credit for ambiance, Burgers Berlin would definitely be a bit further ahead. The inside is quite nice (considering the fact it is just a hole-in-the-wall), with neon-aesthetics well combined with a wannabe-diner look. The burgers are alright. They’re the bog-standard variety with a rather small chunk of meat (which wasn’t that exceptional to begin with). It is not bad, but something about their burger just felt an awful lot like McDonald’s, which will – unfortunately – have to place them at the very bottom of the list.

Regular Burger: 3.20 €
Cheeseburger: 3.40 €
Chips: 1.20 €
Wedges: 1.40 €

Why Ja? An actual diner-like place, onion rings.
Why Nein? Putting the bog in standard.

Burgers Berlin
Sonntagstraße 2, 10245 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

Overall Rank: 6: Burgermeister, Kreuzberg

This is not just me being contrary here, but it’s about time somebody said admitted that Burgermeister ain’t as good as everyone says it is. Sorry. True, the location is a stroke of genius: under the U-Bahn railings in a turn of the century-art-nouveau-look-alike public lavatories’ structure. It really is quite brilliant. Their number system is also a bit more customer friendly than anywhere else (they’ve actually got an electronic display, unlike other places where they just shout something into thin air). Maybe it’s the fact that you have to queue for too long a time and that it doesn’t take long to gather enough material of a hipster-bashing blog entry. Maybe it’s the fact that the buns we got could have been mistaken for charcoals and that the meat was fairly dry, but I just can’t really see why people go on raving about the place. And yet, if you make it through the queue: the sauces are good, the wedges are excellent and it’s the only place in town where you can get a Teutonic version of chips-and-cheese!

Regular Burger: 3.40 €
Cheeseburger: 3.70 €
Chips: 1.50 €
Wedges: 1.60 €
(Cheese-fries: 1.90 €)

Why Ja? Perfect location, good number system, their bacon-cheese-fries (that grease galore is worth every pound you gain in weight), good selection of burgers.
Why Nein? Horrible service, long queues, dry meat, burnt buns.

Oberbaumstraße 8, 10997 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

Overall Rank: 5: Hamburger Heaven, Kreuzberg

True to its location, the burger-stand on Graefestr. is all about friendliness and organic-vibes. Everything is clean and nice, not to mention this being the only place where they offer two degrees of organic meat: “Freiland” and “Bio”, with the difference being that the Bio-animals had been fed organically themselves, whereas the Freiland-cows might have roamed freely through the green meadows of Northern Germany, but their nutrition was based on Lidl produce. Be it as it may, take the “Bio” burger if you come around, the difference is fairly rewarding. The less rewarding elements are the waiting time (there was no real queue and we still managed to wait for nearly 40 minutes out in the cold), the buns (they don’t fall apart, but they’re not tasty either) and the home-made sauces. As the place is all about being organic, they make their own ketchup, BBQ-sauce and the rest. It might sound good (and to be fair, it also tastes good inside the burger), but I’ve rarely been so frustrated as while trying to get some of their thick and sour tomato-spread (AKA home-made ketchup) on top of my chips (home-made as well, yet very good).

Prices: (add 0.50 € for Freiland and 1.00 € for Bio)
Regular Burger: 3.50 €
Cheeseburger: 4.00 €
Chips: 2.00/3.00 €

Why Ja? Very rich burgers, good quality meat, real cheese in the cheeseburger, good chips, nice service, the place also serves steaks for those who could not be bothered taking a burger.
Why Nein? No seating arrangements inside in case it gets either cold or rainy (as in 90% of the time), long wait, home made sauces, an overriding impression of trying too hard to be healthy.

Hamburger Heaven
Graefestraße 93, 10967 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

Overall Rank: 4: Kreuzburger, Kreuzberg.

Tradition has to be rewarded in some way. The original Kreuzburger on Oranienstraße can be crowned as Berlin’s original burger-hole-in-the-wall. The space inside is much bigger than in most other places and is therefore also more suitable for winter escapades. Just keep in mind it’s fairly gritty – and not always the nice way. The burger variety is quite impressive, assuring that just about anyone will be able to find something. Their burgers are fairly standard, but the good way: the meat is good (their organic meat is even better), the sauces are just fine and their selection of chips is great. Just keep in mind that their “home fries” are fairly massive pieces of potatoes, whereas what you mean when you order “wedges” anywhere else would have to be their “country fries”.


Regular Burger: 2.70 € (3.90 € for large/ 3.40 € for organic)
Cheeseburger: 3.10 € (4.40 € for large/ 3.90 € for organic)
Chips: 1.60 €
Wedges: 2.50 €

Why Ja? Good quality; standard burgers; large variety of burgers; good chips that come in more than one shape.
Why Nein? Not the nicest atmosphere.

Kreuzburger (Kreuzberg)
Oranienstraße 190, 10999 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

Overall Rank: 3: Burgerium, Friedrichshain

Surprisingly enough, not one of Berlin’s well known burger institutions, but the hole-in-the-wall on Revaler Straße that seems to be there purely for the sake of large groups of drunken tourists on a stag-night tour of Berlin (i.e. who would be satisfied by just about anything, as long as it’s greasy enough) managed to get to the top three. Don’t let the place’s appearance blind you to their burgers: We’re talking about large, juicy burgers with tasty sauces and great chips.


Regular Burger: 2.90 €
Cheeseburger: 3.30 €
Chips: 1.80 €
Wedges: 2.00 €

Why Ja? Good burgers.
Why Nein? There would be a fair chance to find oneself in the fire range of someone’s vomit in case you decided to sit outside.


Revaler Straße 8, 10245 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

Overall Rank: 2: Marienburger, Prenzlauer Berg 

If I handed hamburger-footprints for service, Marienburger would win by a large margin. The ladies at the till were inherently nice in a way you rarely see in Berlin’s holes-in-the-wall. As it is the only good burger institution in Prenzlauer Berg, expect a long queue due to parents and children negotiating matters of high importance at the till, usually followed by the same parents trying to calm down these same children once they start crying after the first “no”. The space inside is minimal. In summer, hope to get a seat outside, seeing how the street is actually quite pleasant and all. And the most important bit? Yes, the burgers. They’re great. Really. The standard burgers are already massive and the meat is good quality. The topping is otherwise quite minimal (with the buns, gherkins, onions and the usual sauces), but it still managed to be just right. The only problem was that I found the cheese to be quite horrid (they use the worst kind of American melted “cheddar”), but I know some people who actually enjoy an injection of radioactive chemicals into their burger and find cheeseburgers should be served without any real cheese. And yet, try out their Marienburger (double cheeseburger with slices of bacon), it’s a chunk of pure, greasy joy for the mere price of 5 EUR.


Regular: 3.50 €
Cheeseburger: 3.80 €
(Marienburger – double + cheese + bacon: 5.00 €)
Chips: 1.40 €
Wedges: 1.50 €

Why Ja? Great burgers; good meat; nice service; the Marienburger.
Why Nein? Long wait; horrid cheese.

Marienburger Imbiss
Marienburger Straße 47, 10405 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

Overall Rank: 1: BBI – Berlinburger International, Neukölln

The best burger joint in Berlin is actually a den. Or a pigsty, you choose. I reckon it’s appropriate, as we are talking about Newkölln and most people around would not be caught dead in anything less cool (or without the obligatory swanky moustaches and thick-rimmed glasses). The interior space is tiny and stuffy and the tables outside are just... well... not the nicest place on earth. However, go there. It’s worth every cent. The regular burgers are already massive (even though you can also order the “Nimmersatt” version for an additional 2.80 € and probably stuff your face with enough meat to keep your stomach busy for a week) and not always easy to get into a normal person’s mouth (mine is larger than most, so I am usually spared the need to cut things into smaller slices). But the main point is that the meat is great and the topping together with that lamb’s-lettuce is quite amusing. Even if you’re not the type who likes dens in Neukölln, you should try their burgers.


Regular: 3.90 €
Cheeseburger: 4.40 €
Chips: 2.00 €
Wedges: 2.00 €

Why Ja? Great burgers, period.
Why Nein? Not the best space ever; their chilli-cheese-fries are quite strange (a layer of chips, covered with a slice of cheese, covered with nice, yet bland chilli con carne).

BBI - Berlinburger International
Pannierstraße 5, 12047 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

August 11, 2011

On Expats, Crocs and Breweries

Brauhaus am Südstern - Kreuzberg

Last week I found myself sitting in my kitchen with an older American lady and her over-developed sense of entitlement, wondering what to do for food. The conversation became truly impossible when her dark passenger came into the picture and she ended up twitching compulsively, grinding her teeth and growling “ethnic!” every time I suggested anything resembling German food.

Needless to say, I felt like punching her in the face. There is nothing worse than booing on an ex-pat’s attempt to present their country-of-choice’s culinary treats. I may have an interminable list of grievances relating to every annoying facet of the Teutonic way of life, but at the end of the day, I am still in Germany. Alive, kicking and paying taxes. Moreover, with visitors from abroad lurking around my Kreuzberg flat, I suddenly find myself getting strangely sensitive about the topic. I cannot seem to fend off the notion that I have to defend my choice of residence and forget everything I find so infuriating about the place.

As that lady was a tad older and made a whole speech not being able to walk unless carried or chauffeured, I ended up explaining to her that all “ethnic” restaurants were too far away and that if we wanted to avoid walking too much, the only choice we had was between German and Italian restaurants. She grudgingly accepted to try out German food, as the horror of forcing carbs down her throat (the Italian way) seemed to give her spasms she could not quite wrap her finger around. She then stashed her sense of entitlement into her handbag while changing her vile Crocs into less comfortable, yet equally vile shoes in order to go and check out Brauhaus am Südstern on Hasenheide.

Now there is nothing better than taking a random visitor from abroad to a brewery in order to do German food. The Brauhaus am Südstern brews its own beer (a dunkler and heller Stern, both for 3.40 € a pint. Definitely better than the local poison otherwise known as Berliner Pilsner/Kindl) and serves a large selection of bog standard German dishes from schnitzel to Bratwurst. It has a large balcony facing the street and another garden facing Hasenheide park in the back (luckily the small chunk of it that is still relatively unaffected by drug dealing of all sorts). The interior space is vast and is neither particularly inviting nor disturbing in any way. Teutonically standard would have to fit the bill even here.

It was a chilly evening and we started our meal with two soups: the ungarische Gulaschsuppe (Hungarian goulash soup, 3.40 €) and a Rote-Beetesuppe (beetroot soup for 3.30 €). They were both pleasingly substantial. The beetroot soup was thick and sourish with a touch of tomato. It was not very refined, but it had a strong presence and was overall one of these perfect dishes for a quiet evening. The goulash soup was a nice chunk of Germanness altogether: it was thick and stodgy, meat galore with a taste that was neither too overwhelming nor in any way bland. Again nothing close to an orgasm of refined quality, yet it was a dish was all the more pleasing for its no-bullshit value. It was inexpensive, large and filling.

Beetroot soup
Beer goulash

We continued to order stews: the Deftiges Biergulasch (beer goulash with Semmelknödel and red cabbage, 9.50 €) and the Boeuf Stroganoff from the menu of the week (for those who do not know what a beef stroganoff is, I’ll just have to describe it as slices of beef in creamy and mushroomy gravy, here it was served with a side of potato rösti and a salad for 12.50 €). The goulash was great. It was simple and hearty. The beer gravy was thick and pleasing and the meat was tender and fun. The Semmelknödel (bread dumplings) were just right – crispy outside and flavoursome inside. The cabbage was a bit bland, but then again, it was only a side of red cabbage. The Beef Stroganoff was – again – fun. It was a well-executed stodgy dish for a cold evening. It was not refined as the ridiculously French version of its name or the higher price might have suggested, but it was good quality for good value. The sauce was good (one often gets creamy sauces that are just creamy without any flavour to them, here it was just right) and the meat’s quality was more than satisfying. The rösti was more of a large potato pancake, but it was pleasant enough and gave the dish the Russian touch it would have otherwise lacked completely. We left so full that we could not even fit a dessert down our throats.

Goulash soup
Beef Stroganoff

At the end of the day, I can only recommend Brauhaus am Südstern. It may not be a culinary experience that will swipe you off your feet, but it does offer nice, hearty food for very affordable prices. If you happen to be around Südstern and feel like having a goulash, don’t be a stranger!

Overall Mark:

Brauhaus Südstern
Hasenheide 69, 10967 Berlin

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August 05, 2011

A Show of Savoir Vivre in West Berlin

La Cocotte - Schöneberg

Das Auge isst mit is a German saying translatable with „the eye takes part in the eating.“ Its point is the usual “presentation matters,” which we all know. Most people would (most probably) not like to eat anything that looks like troll excrements or a squashed frog. So far so good. But what about different sorts of presentation? Let’s say more theatrical ones?

The element of show involved in owning a restaurant had not bothered me in the slightest before Tom and Jamie, two London acquaintances of mine, decided to venture into the world of culinary service and open a café in East London. As London’s all about added value and exclusive identity, Tom and Jamie needed a concept and they needed it fast. They came up with the idea of an “entertainment café,” which would move its focal point from the banal idea of coffee into the value of its owners’ exquisite company and their ability to entertain their customers.

I found the idea utterly ludicrous. Call me old-fashioned, but I get the urge to punch people in the face if they happen to be trying to entertain me while I’ve got a chunk of quiche stuck down my throat. Tom and Jamie actually never got the opportunity to prove me wrong (as the entire business proved to be more expensive than what they had had in mind), but with time, I realised every restaurant had an element of showbiz attached to it. It can be the loud kind, like the 90’s classic Beverly Hills 90210’s obnoxiously annoying Brenda metamorphosing into the Southern Laverne just to keep her customers’ complaints at bay, or it can be the French kind, as I discovered last week in Schöneberg’s La Cocotte.

The restaurant seems to be a West Berliner institution of sorts. It enjoys the best location Schöneberg can offer on Vorbergstraße, a pleasant side street off the cute (and slightly overrated) Akazzienstraße. It has a charming garden outside, but fate so wished and we found our way there on a cold and rainy summer evening, which induced the discovery of La Cocotte’s interior space. And a discovery it was. Not because it was all too well designed. It wasn’t even that pretty. Yes, it had daft homo-erotic art works on the walls and the lightning was quite nice, but it was a bit drab with its dirty-grey walls. And then there were these tables crammed up on top of each other so that you got the feeling you couldn’t escape eavesdropping on your neighbour.

But wait a minute, a French restaurant with grey walls, filthy loos and narrow seating arrangements? Gosh, it sounds a bit like actually being IN France. Which it really was. Bit by bit, I realised La Cocotte was just one big show. It was all about recreating an authentic French restaurant in West Berlin. It doesn’t have the je-ne-sais-quoi feeling of posh aloofness attached to the traditional British or German perception of French culinary institutions. No trace of that perfect ambiance from an imagined utopia of beautiful things. This one is what the real stuff is made of.

And last, but not least, one could not recreate a credible impression of France without speaking to everyone in French and visibly expecting them to follow suit. I didn’t mind the bonjours and voilàs and the general underlying francophone snobbery, but then again, it can come across as intimidating (which some of the waiters clearly enjoyed in a fair number of cases). Quite unnecessary, at the end of the day.

And yet, going through all this effort to create a French Disneyland would not have done any good without the appropriate food quality. The menu was quite promising to begin with. It was not regional, like most restaurants in France would be, but it did make a point out of living up to the restaurant’s name and serving lots of casserole-based dishes (cocotte is – surprisingly enough - French for casserole) and a couple of unavoidable French classics like steak tartar or bouillabaisse.
Terrine de Crustacés

We started by ordering two relatively simple starters (we decided to leave the likes of foie gras, noix de St. Jacques or escargots for another occasion, as they all cost between 7.50 and 9.50 € and we decided we could just as well stay below 6 € with the starters): the terrine de crustacés (shellfish terrine, 5.90 €) and the pissaladière (a Provencal onion confit with tomatoes, anchovies and black olives on a thin layer of bread-dough, 4.90 €). Both portions were well presented and large for the price (and for the fact it was a French place, where you know the chef actually has an excuse to keep the portions miniscule). The pissaladière’s quality was quite good with the only complaint being too little anchovy-olive presence. The terrine was harder to comment, as it was just perfect. Everything about it was just right: it was delicious with the exact right taste of sea; its texture was smooth and pleasing and even the rouille that was served on the side was a perfect match.
Crème Brulée

If the starters were enough to teleport us to France, then the main courses were nothing less than a stroke of joy. We ordered the bouillabaisse (a fish and shellfish soup from Marseilles, served with croutons, rouille and cheese, 17.90 €) and the boeuf Bourguignon de joues (a Bourguigon made of veal cheeks, 13.90 €) together with a side of potato-olive-rosemary mash (for an additional 1.90 €). As both dishes came in their black, steamy iron casseroles, we could not help noticing that the quality was impressive even here. The bouillabaisse might not have been the best one I have ever had, but it was generous and refined. A Marseillais might frown a bit at it, but it was more than pleasing for our local Berliner circumstances. The Bourguignon was even more exciting. The meat was perfectly tender and the sauce was perfect. It was strong and refined at the same time – not originally so, Julia Childe wouldn’t mind eating it either.

What’s left? Oh, desserts. We went for the crème brulée (5.90 €) and the tartelette au citron (4.50 €). Both were no-bullshit-cookbook-standard desserts, which means they were not too original. And yet, both were perfectly executed, being perfectly tasty. The same applies to just about anything about La Cocotte – it is a standard French restaurant with all the froglike knots and bolts. If you can handle the French show aspect and want good-quality, to-the-point and in no way overpriced French food, La Cocotte’s team of squeaky waiters are waiting with just what you’re looking for!

Overall mark:

La Cocotte
Vorbergstraße 10, 10823 Berlin

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