Is dan dan mian the new ramen? Two new restaurants serve versions of the spicy Szechuan speciality.
The population of China exceeds that of Europe and the US put together, so it really shouldn’t be surprising that the country’s food is more diversified than wonton soup, fried rice and crispy duck. Yet the regional Chinese craze that’s been hitting US and UK foodie communities of late (as dubiously satirised in Calvin Trillin’s 2016 New Yorker poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”) has been slow to catch on here in Berlin. With only a single-digit number of “authentic” Chinese restaurants worth mentioning, it’s been up to trendy expats to answer the call. Just in the past couple months, two übercool joints have opened serving fusion-ish takes on the Szechuanese noodle dish dan dan mian. In its basic form, it’s wheat noodles topped with ground beef or pork, chilli oil, Szechuan peppercorns, pickled vegetables and, a relatively recent Western touch, sesame paste. At these places, it’s… a little different.
Just look at The Panda Noodle, a slapdash hole-in-the-wall off Lausitzer Platz that resembles a Kita with an Asian fetish. It’s actually Thai-owned, and its menu is a confusing jumble of nationalities: side dishes include Japanese rolled omelette, Korean kimchi and a disappointingly bland tofu-avocado salad with “Chinese vinaigrette”. Eventually, you’ll decode that the house special is in fact a bastardised version of dan dan mian. You get it by requesting the “Dan Dan Pandastyle” topping (€3) in addition to their €6.50 base order of homemade noodles, which already comes with fried tempura flakes, lime wedges, cilantro, the pickled vegetable of the day (shiitake mushrooms, on our visit) and another pickle of your choice (we went with the kohlrabi kimchi). The result comes out in multiple colourful bowls, to be assembled DIY-style.
It’s as much of a mess as it sounds, but it’s a tasty mess, as long as you’re not into subtlety. With the exception of the noodles (nicely chewy) and the tempura bits (utterly unnecessary), every element in this dish seems custom-engineered to pummel your tastebuds into submission: the tart lime juice, the spicy, fermented pickles and a tongue-shrivelling amount of whole Szechuan peppercorns incorporated into a thick, sesame-heavy ground beef sauce. Order a Singha beer (€2.50) well ahead of time to prepare yourself, and don’t expect tap water as this is one of those infuriating Berlin restaurants that won’t give it to you.
Those looking for a more civilised noodle experience ought to head up to The Tree in Mitte. Szechuanese co-owner Ling Ma studied architecture and design before teaming up with her friend Xiaoting Chang to bring her homeland’s specialities to Berlin, and it shows. This place is an Instagram wet dream, all exposed brick, handmade wooden tables and Edison bulbs with jaw-grindingly precious touches like a toilet roll holder made out of a tree branch. Half of the already small space is off-limits to eaters: it’s a gallery/showroom occupied by a chairless table, a bathtub and yet more tree branches.
You’d expect a place like this to serve something delicate, fussy and not worth the price. You’d be wrong. Here, the take on dan dan mian is called “Ahorn” (€8.90) and comprises homemade noodles topped with ground pork in a sesame-chilli-Szechuan pepper sauce that hits significant yet manageable spicy-tingly levels (the effect’s called ma la, food nerds), tempered with half a hard-boiled egg, a sprinkling of peanuts and a chickpea paste that Ling says is replacing some hard-to-import Szechuanese pea but resembled chunky hummus to our Neukölln-trained tongue. For freshness, there are a few leaves of spinach, some sliced raw okra, carrot and daikon radish and – the only weird touch – a skewered cherry tomato. The bowl is as pretty as its surroundings, but it’s also elemental comfort food, the kind of stuff you just want to eat and keep on eating on a dreary November day. Same went for the noodle soup (“Bambus”, €9.90), with fall-apart-tender beef in a warmly spiced broth.
We’ll be back soon for the vegetarian and vegan noodle dishes, which come with tofu or avocado, and to try the tempting sides, like tofu with braised pork and lily blossoms. Our only worry is that these newbie restaurateurs’ just-so aesthetic (did we mention our Leitungswasser was not only free but came in a carafe with a straw and a sprig of mint?) and correspondingly precise, balanced touch with the food won’t survive what’s sure to be an onslaught of customers once word about their noodles gets out. For sure, that “showroom” is toast.
The Panda Noodle Lausitzer Platz 12, Kreuzberg, Mon-Fri 12-21, Sun 13-21
The Tree Brunnenstr. 167, Mitte, daily 12-21:30