My fellow Americans, this writer shares your Essensheimweh. Even if the country isn’t actively on fire by the time you’re reading this, the combination of pandemic and Flugscham has made flying overseas a fraught enough proposition that if you’re anything like me, it may be months if not years before your next proper bagel, burrito or barbecued rib. Making it worse is that there’s a serious dearth of US cuisine in Berlin nowadays. There are the dinosaurs – burger pioneer The Bird and bookstore stalwart Fine Bagels – and a couple cult newcomers, like Wedding pastrami smoker Lino’s BBQ and Nashville chicken truck Humble Pie.
Other than that, “American food” is mostly left up to well-meaning interpreters like Eitan and Joanna of Kischke BBQ in Friedrichshain. Hailing from Israel and Poland respectively, the couple has managed to hold on to this space since 2005 – you might have thrown up in one of its toilets back when it was the long-running bar Soylent. Now it’s both a barbecue joint and a “Yiddish-influenced culinary journey”, serving everything from Texas-style brisket to herring toast to a ramen-inspired take on matzo ball soup. Oy vey! It’s endearingly loopy, even if it doesn’t always land. That brisket in particular required copious lubrication – I had no problem slathering on the irresistible sauce from local provider Eckart, but a Texan would’ve considered it a shonda.
Better were already-saucy meats like the tangy pulled chicken and the “hot and sticky” glazed organic US short rib. But you’ll have the most fun trying the wackier dishes, like the soup (the balls aren’t made from matzo meal, but the dill-scented chicken broth is pure Jewish penicillin), the pita sandwich stuffed with pulled beef and mac’n’cheese, or specials like blinis topped with blood sausage. To drink, there’s imported US craft beer and killer cocktails like the Schikse, a margarita-like concoction with Agricole rum and beetroot schnapps.
Meanwhile, it seems US-born restaurateurs are forgoing beer and BBQ in favor of loftier pursuits. Curated wine, small plates and fancy sandwiches, in the case of Madeleine McLean. Originally from Colorado via the Hamptons, she got her start co-organising natural wine pop-ups before partnering with Vietnamese-Austrian chef Stefanie La (ex-Tim Raue) to open a restaurant on a neglected stretch of Gneisenaustraße. By day, Hinterland is a deli serving up Italian cold cuts or marinated mushrooms on squishy white baguettes from a Turkish bakery, or Havelland pastrami on Bekarei brioche (€9-11). By night, it’s a wine bistro boasting your typical seasonal menu spotlighting small farms and local producers.
Dinner isn’t exactly American – dishes like beef tartare with smoked labneh or Gut & Bösel fingerling potatoes with lacto-fermented blackberries could be transplanted to, say, Michelberger and nobody would notice – but McLean’s bubbly, effusive service is pure US of A. Prices, too, are more Hamptons than Kreuzberg; we ordered that creamy tartare and some Domberger sourdough to spread it on, and were out €22 without denting our appetite. The real reason to come here is the wine list, which is full of approachable low-intervention gems from Germany and beyond. Come for a sandwich or pre-dinner snack accompanied by a glass or two, and you’ll get out without going broke. Or if you’re down with wine for brunch, go on a Saturday afternoon and accompany your libations with a €12 bacon, egg and cheese sandwich à la New York convenience stores.
But is that really what you’re homesick for? Ask a US expat what they miss most and nine times out of 10, they’ll say Mexican food. And by now, Berlin’s taco game has improved to the point where it rivals that of – well, not LA or Austin, but certainly a small Midwestern town. One of the more promising newcomers is Neukölln nook Oh La Queca, opened by the crew behind short-lived pop-up Madre Tortilla. As you might guess, tortillas are their thing – homemade, beginning with the corn kernels, thicker and way more flavorful than the prefab kind. They’re fried into chips and smothered in salsa for chilaquiles, topped with eggs for huevos rancheros, wrapped around potato or chicken for autas, served alongside shredded chicken swimming in a rich mole sauce…
There are tacos, of course, but quesadillas, whether cheesy or vegan, will give you the most bang for your buck (€7.50-8.50). The one with hibiscus flowers, beetroot and green beans might be a Berlin invention, but the sweet earthiness mixed with salty cheese and tangy (though sadly German-spicy) salsa was a combination I didn’t know I needed. If I ever do get back to the States at some point, I might just start craving it.
Kischke BBQ Gabriel-Max-Str. 3, Friedrichshain, Thu-Sat 17-23, Sun 12-22 | Hinterland Gneisenaustr. 67, Kreuzberg, Tue-Fri 12-15, 18-23, Sat 12-15, 18-23 | Oh La Queca Reuterstr. 36, Neukölln, Mon, Wed-Fri 12:30-22, Sat-Sun 14-22