‘Authentically’ Mexican or not, burritos have taken over Berlin. John Riceburg talks to the men and women bridging the 9500-km gap between Germany and Mexico, one tortilla at a time.
Ten years ago, the Berlin burrito scene was bleak. There were only restaurants with names like “Speedy Gonzales” run by Bangladeshis serving Tex-Mex overflowing with gouda and canned corn. And then there was Dolores. When the San Francisco-style burrito slingers opened up in Mitte in 2003, Amis would come from as far away as Steglitz to get something that reminded them of the spicy food they loved at home. Now, Berlin’s in the midst of a burrito boom, with shops from Neukölln to Wittenbergplatz serving quality south-of-the-border cuisine. But who’s bringing all this Mexican food to Germany, considering that a mere 1180 Mexicans live in the city?
“What we do is a lot of work,” says Philipp Krahé, co-founder of Dolores, at their Wittenbergplatz location. With a broad smile that makes him look very relaxed for a 45-year-old business owner, he explains how he started his first restaurant in 2003. “At the time, Berlin was just a backwater town with nothing but a great nightlife. Now, it’s a global city – but the quality of food is still quite low.” He had travelled in the US and also in Mexico, and he recognised a market for the belly-filling snack.
But how to get all the necessary ingredients? “We have to order ingredients from six different wholesalers, some of them from Mexico,” says Krahé. The biggest logistical problem is the avocados. “Most Germans can’t even tell if an avocado is ripe, so the sellers know that Germans will buy the worst ones.” He’s heard a lot of complaints about his guacamole costing €1, but that’s what he has to pay for a single good avocado.
The results are impressive. Dolores offers six spicy sauces, from mild to almost unbearable, and the burritos are big enough to fill up an American football player. But this quality is a lot of work, which is why Krahé hasn’t gotten much competition in the last decade. A steady flow of expats and Easyjet tourists keep the two locations booming.
Dolores, Bayreuter Str. 36, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Wittenbergplatz, Tel 030 5482 1590; Rosa-Luxemburg-Str. 7, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Alexanderplatz, Tel 030 2809 9597, Mon-Sat 11:30-22, Sun 13-22; burritos from €3.90
The local boys
“We make Berlin burritos,” says Ohmid Toni. Born in Berlin to Iranian parents, the 34-year-old and his two brothers opened Schöneberg’s Berlin Burrito Company in 2009. Their inspiration came from trips to the US – and also from Dolores. “A bit of competition helps business,” Toni explains. “And döner shops take ideas from each other all the time.” Even the light green walls are reminiscent of Dolores’ décor.
Customers will sometimes mistake the brothers for Mexicans, but in their restaurant they speak Persian, not Spanish. “Some people say this doesn’t taste like the food in Mexico. Well it’s not supposed to!” They prepare the rice the Iranian way, as they learned from their mother, but other ingredients seem to come from cheap German distributors, like hot sauce without Mexican chillis or guacamole with no real taste or texture.
Not many tourists come to the store – instead you see regulars, real Berliner Jungs. There’s no pork and no meat mixed in with the beans, so both Muslims and vegans can feel at home.
Berlin Burrito Company, Pallasstr. 21, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Nollendorfplatz, Tel 030 2362 4990, Mon-Sun 11:30-23; burritos from €3.60
“I’m trying to get as close to Mexican food as I can,” says Julian Boyce, owner and cook at Santa María in the heart of Kreuzberg 36. At the beginning, the Australian served tortas and tacos like a Mexican diner – “but people just didn’t get it,” he remembers. After a while, he added burritos to the menu. “Burritos in Northern Mexico are just beans and sometimes meat,” he explains. He’s proud that his don’t include any rice, corn, lettuce, or anything else ‘inauthentic’.
The former White Trash cook was part of a small group who opened three different Mexican restaurants in 2009-10. But that group has since split up, and while María Bonita – run by a Texan – is still going strong in Prenzlauer Berg, María Peligro in eastern Kreuzberg has folded. “It’s definitely getting busier here” says Boyce, but he’s also seen plenty of other Mexican joints shut their doors. His customers are mostly expats, but he’s working hard to make inroads with the locals. On his Taco Tuesdays, tacos and tequila shots are served for €1 each, attracting throngs of Kreuzbergers who are increasingly getting used to the extremely spicy yellow habanero sauce.
Most days you’ll see Boyce in his noisy open kitchen, making gigantic plates of enchiladas or chilaquiles (fried tortilla chips) smothered in chilli sauce. He has been known to come to work at 7:30am to make up to 2000 tortillas for the day. He would like to expand, but “it’s hard to find people who can really cook Mexican food”.
Santa María, Oranienstr. 170, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor, Tel 030 9221 0027, Mon-Sun 12-2, burritos from €6
“Burritos aren’t Mexican food,” says Eitan Malkin who opened up No Hablo Español (“I don’t speak Spanish”) in Friedrichshain last year. The Israeli 36-year-old takes a light-hearted approach to dining: one promotion involves playing rock-paper-scissors with the server, with half off your cheque if you win.
Likewise, the tiny shop’s name is a bit of a joke, since Malkin worked as a chef in Madrid for two years and speaks Spanish well. The name is more about his burrito philosophy: “Like a burger – is that American food? Is it from Hamburg? No, it’s international.” Some of his burritos include mole, others Indian-style chicken curry.
For Malkin, one problem with the Berlin food scene is that most people are looking for a deal, and that means ingredients from a freezer or a can. “If you see a cocktail for €2.50, everyone in their right mind must realise something is wrong with it.” His burritos cost a bit more: “We make everything fresh here every day.” His customers are mostly office workers and just a few tourists – including those who come in to ask if, despite what the sign says, they speak Spanish.
No Hablo Español, Kopernikusstr. 22, Friedrichshain, S+U-Bhf Warschauer Str., Tel 030 9560 9351, Mon-Sun 12-23, burritos from €5
The real real deal
“Mexican cuisine is very diverse, but very few people in Europe know it,” says Paco Franco, who just opened the second location of Ta’Cabrón in Friedrichshain. With his long hair and black clothes, the 38-year-old from Mexico City might look like he belongs in a metal band, but he’s actually a trained dentist. “I would have had to essentially repeat university to be certified here,” he says, so he entered the restaurant business. “The only other time I worked in a restaurant was at the very first McDonald’s in Mexico, when I was 16.”
Along with Sinaloan partner (and ex-lawyer) Joaquín Robredo, he opened the first Ta’Cabrón location in Kreuzberg three years ago. The staff are mostly Mexican; the ones who aren’t are still fluent in Spanish. “Sixty percent of our customers are Germans, and about 15 percent are Latinos living here,” says Franco. He feels it’s the authentic food that customers value – as well as the fact that they can order in German, which doesn’t always work at Dolores or Santa María.
The menu includes a few dishes unfamiliar to most Germans, like citrus-marinated cochinita pibil from the Yucatán and molletes, baked bread covered with beans (“a typical food for Mexican students,” one server explains). They also organise film screenings, solidarity parties for social movements in Mexico and holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day.
Ta’Cabrón, Wühlischstr. 12, Friedrichshain, S+U-Bhf Ostkreuz, Tel 030 3385 3395; Skalitzer Str. 60, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Schlesisches Tor, Tel 030 3266 2439, Mon-Thu, Sun 13-23, Fri-Sat 13-3, burritos from €5.50
Distrito Federal delicacies?
Another Mexico City expat, Raul Oliver, opened Chaparro on Wiener Straße last year. The 36-year-old trained chef opened his first restaurant 10 years ago in Marbella, Spain. More recently, he noticed the people of Berlin, where he’s lived for the past five years, developing a taste for burritos. He decided to throw his hat in the ring because “the trend is continuing”. Served with rice, lettuce, and pico de gallo in the Californian or New Mexican rather than typical Mexican style, Chaparro’s burritos have their own (damn good) unique taste that attracts tourists from across the Americas as well as locals. A real bonus is the homemade salsa, also available in bottles.
Oliver also offers cooking courses and catering: real Mexican cuisine is not just snacks but also multiple-course meals for gourmets. “I serve the Mexican embassy regularly,” he says with pride. “The Mexicans and Latinos will come again and again if you do it right.”
Chaparro, Wiener Str. 15A, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Görlitzer Bahnhof, Tel 030 3036 8730, Mon-Wed 12-22, Thu-Sat 12-23, Sun 15-21, burritos from €3.90
The Neukölln frontier
“Vegetarian Mexican food doesn’t really exist, because even the beans are usually cooked in animal lard,” says Australian expat Eliza Hiscox of Burrito Baby. In November, just a week after Hiscox married her German partner Alex Britting, the couple opened the first burrito shop in Neukölln.
A stand outside advertises “tasty burritos” – but doesn’t mention that they’re all vegetarian or vegan. “I’ve had people eat here and then thank me for not putting that on the sign, because they wouldn’t have tried a burrito with tofu if they hadn’t sat down first,” says Britting. The food is savoury and surprisingly light on the stomach.
“The Turkish supermarkets have been a godsend,” adds Hiscox, because they offer fresh cilantro and other ingredients used in Mexican and Turkish (but not German) cuisine.
In addition to being the only place in Berlin that serves a breakfast burrito (filled with eggs, potatoes and cheese), Burrito Baby doubles up the tortillas in their tacos, Mexican-style. The store does, however, have silverware available because, as Toni from Berlin Burrito Company says: “German culture can’t really deal with food that drips everywhere.”
Burrito Baby, Pflügerstr. 11, Neukölln, U-Bhf. Schönleinstr., Tel 030 3385 1520, Tue-Thu 13-21, Fri-Sat 13-22, Sun 15-21, burritos from €4