Berlin's Best Fast Food is on a Street Shaped by War
How the Middle Eastern conflicts shape the world of German street food.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Germany.
For a while now, Iraqis have been coming again. Last summer it was Syrians; before that, Kurds; before that, Lebanese people. They all gather on Sonnenallee in Berlin, Germany, also referred to as the "Arab street" by some, although actually only 700 meters of it—between Hermannplatz and Weichselstraße—are really Arabic. On the corner of Weichselstraße you have City Chicken, "the queen of Levant cooking," according to the German newspaper Die Welt. It was founded by Lebanese immigrants. Thirty years ago, the first war to send people fleeing to Sonnenallee was the Lebanese civil war.
There are a lot of chicken places in that area, but the most successful one is certainly Risa Chicken. A few years ago, a local newspaper called Risa Chicken "fake KFC," which might not be totally respectful, but also isn't a lie. The store does look like the chain, but the food is better. Risa Chicken was founded 15 years ago by a woman who had to flee from the Lebanese civil war and who prefers to remain anonymous (the Risa Chicken folks do talk to us, but for unknown reasons they are slightly media-averse). She currently has four stores in Berlin and will be opening a fifth one soon. The first Risa Chicken location also opened on Sonnenallee, at the corner of Reuterstraße, and it's still there today. Inside, you'll see a large wheel, in which about 100 chicken turn between two metal grids.
"Risa Chicken is the best store," says Mahmoud Kaddoura. In 2015, Kaddoura came to Berlin from Aleppo, where he was an English teacher. After 83 days of imprisonment, interrogations, extortion, and beatings, he and his family fled Aleppo. Today, he earns a little extra money by showing people around Sonnenallee for Querstadtein, an organization where refugees give tours of their new home-cities. He knows the street well; he buys his groceries here and eats here often. His first visit to Sonnenallee was on a Sunday, and not a soul was there. The second time it felt like the streets of Aleppo or Damascus, and he loved it. When Kaddoura speaks to his father on the phone, they tease each other. Towards the beginning, the father had the upper hand; Kaddoura couldn't get the food that he loved in Germany, and his father made fun of him for that. Over the years, resources in Aleppo became increasingly scarce, while resources on Sonnenallee became increasingly abundant. When they speak today, Kaddoura shows his father his fridge and laughs.
Kaddoura takes us to Al-Andalos, a Lebanese joint. The interior design is what you'd expect from a fast-food place, and the food is just "okay," he says. He explains that it just doesn't taste the way he remembers it. Inside, we see only Germans, many of whom are students; the food is cheap. He points to the skewer: If it were up to him, it would be chicken breast. This one looks like a Turkish döner. It lacks the traditional shawarma seasonings, including cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and lemon. And they add pickled beets to their shawarma, turning the whole thing pink. That doesn't belong on a shawarma, he says.
The new spots do it differently. Al-Dimashqi opened last year, and recently moved into a larger shop. Today, the wait is 45 minutes on a busy day. They serve Syrian food. When you enter the place, you are faced with a massive, 6-foot-long charcoal grill and a line. They put thoum, a garlic cream sauce, on their shawarma, and the food is not just a twist on döner, as is sometimes the case. It's different, and better. But restaurants like this, by raising the standard of Arabic fast food, are raising the standard of food in the whole city. Sure, you'll still find a lot of bad food in Berlin—general improvement takes time.
The first Lebanese refugees came to Sonnenallee 30 years ago, and little by little their influence is becoming noticeable even beyond Sonnenallee. Risa Chicken's fifth location isn't going to be in the neighborhood—they're opening up a large shop in an old McDonald's directly behind Bahnhof Zoo, a major train station. It's a typical tourist destination, which makes it a smart move: Even if the local press called them "fake KFC," it's worth noting Risa Chicken's food is genuinely just good. The meat is juicy; the breading is crisp. And in response to Risa Chicken's popularity, other places are raising the quality of their own food.
Azzam on Sonnenallee was founded by Palestinians, and today its hummus is considered to be the best of the city. Die ZEIT reports that Azzam is also the destination for the Israeli community of Berlin, because good hummus is still so hard to find here. Azzam serves its hummus cold, with good oil and a trowel of their warm chickpeas, which simmer all day in meter-high pots. It's places like Azzam that pave the way for other restaurants by proving how good hummus can be. Once hummus fans reach critical mass, they venture out from Sonnenallee. Last year, two men, one Palestinian and one Israeli, opened Kanaan, a place for hipsters in the nouveau-riche Prenzlauer Berg area. After opening Kanaan Express, a fast-casual food place, they plan to take their hummus into supermarkets.
Kaddoura stands on Sonnenallee and tells us that there's only really fast food here, not classic main dishes—families cook those at home. People go out for the fast food they don't have the equipment to make at home. Risa Chicken knows this. The food there becomes cheaper as the portions become larger—it's designed for large families. And, slowly but surely, the restaurants are expanding. A spokesperson for Risa Chicken told MUNCHIES: "Our goal is to make the product known in Germany at some point, beyond the borders of Berlin." Al-Dimashqi, the Syrian fast food place with the long wait, opened a second shop in another district, very close to Kaddoura's apartment. But he says it's not that good there. It still tastes best on Sonnenallee.