Monday, February 18, 2013

Mexiko: Nichts wie weg hier!

One of my earliest food memories is eating steak tacos in Nogales, Mexico with my mother and grandmother when I was about four. I can't explain it, but for whatever reason the taste of that steak taco is more vivid to me than things I've eaten much more recently: the soft flour tortilla, the charred pieces of meat, and the shredded ice berg lettuce - nothing else. In hindsight, it seems unlikely that I would have been allowed to eat lettuce even in border town Mexico, so maybe we were in Tucson and I am blending memories, but the taste is still very real to me. Good Mexican food was a constant in my life until I moved abroad and, while I make it at home with self-imported ingredients, a lack of good Mexican always seems like an oversight in city planning to me, unfair as that may be. Still, somehow I prefer this lack to subpar Mexican restaurants. Few things make me sadder than bad Mexican food. I will admit to feeling a twinge of guilt about this post because I'll be the first to acknowledge that in the six years I've lived in Berlin, Mexican food has improved dramatically. In my early days, the Mexican food to be found here made taco bell look autentico. Many of those restaurants were run by Bangladeshis who had never been anywhere near Mexico. I'm sure they were top-notch Bangladeshi cooks and I so wish they had focused on that, but instead there wasn't any remotely good Bangladeshi or Mexican food to be found. Today there are several Mexican restaurants in Berlin with an actual Mexican on board. At first glance, these establishments look like places I have happily frequented in gentrified areas of various major US cities - the walls are painted bright colors, Mexican streamers decorate the ceilings...The menus look familiar, too: tacos de carnitas, chilaquiles, burritos con tinga de pollo. I sort of wish I had only ever looked into these restaurants and never actually eaten at them. I know all too well that you have to cook the food that your customers want to eat, but I have cooked traditional Mexican food for Germans on several occasions and my guests seemed pretty happy. Honestly, I do not know how the Mexicans involved in these restaurants sleep at night. That may sound extreme. I told you, Mexican food is close to my heart. In the interest of full disclosure, I at at Maria Bonita a few times a couple years ago and remember liking it. I don't have a great excuse for not having been back except that I don't live nearby anymore, they only have a few stools so it's not a great place for catching up with friends, and I've read that it's gone down hill. Tonight we'd planned to go to Maria Peligro, Maria Bonita's Kreuzberg outpost, which is or I should say was, a real restaurant with chairs and tables, but I noticed in the afternoon (by chance) that it is now closed. We almost went to Ta'Cabron, but ended up at Santa Maria (the remaining sister of Maria Bonita). Ta'Cabron seemed a little far for someone this pregnant to travel with no guarantee (and little hope) of a good dinner. I've read a few good things about it, but also a lot of not so good things. I had eaten at Santa Maria a year or so ago and not really liked it, but it seemed a good compromise location-wise and they do also have tables and chairs. Any restaurant can have an off night, I figured... Alas, the food doesn't seem to have changed at all - not a good thing. I had tacos de carnitas and my friend had a burrito de verduras. Neither one of them was disgusting ... but neither was good either. As for the burrito, Mexico actually has a lot of good vegetable dishes. For the life of me, I can't understand why a restaurant claiming to serve "classic street style" food would stuff their vegetarian burrito with eggplant and roasted red peppers. Again, it was fine......not remotely classic and the tamarind-habanero marinade was not at all detectable, but a bean burrito can be a thing of such beauty. There's just no need to be creative, especially when you haven't mastered the basics. And the tacos. Sad, sad tacos. I think the corn tortillas at Santa Maria are actually very good, but they are tiny and when buried under huge piles of greasy meat - you can't appreciate them at all. In fact, it's absolutely impossible to pick up the tacos - you can't even begin to fold the sides in, there's just too much meat. And honestly, the meat isn't all that great. As mentioned, it is way too greasy and there isn't really any spicing, which would be ok if it weren't for the grease and if the carnitas had been properly crisped. Or if there were less of it. Or if was served with anything vegetal beyond a sad miniscule pile of salsa fresca and some minced onions. Santa Maria would save money and make vastly better tacos if they used half the meat and garnished each taco with some shredded iceberg lettuce (here in the land of iceberg lettuce salads no less), a couple sliced radishes, and maybe a cilantro leaf or two. Perhaps they are trying to satisfy meat-happy German customers, but to me the people behind Santa Maria are telling you through their food that Mexican food is simplistic (slap a pile of whatever meat on a plate, don't worry about flavor or texture or ...) and not worth making an effort for. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the cooking at Santa Maria is lazy and lacks soul. If I didn't have two quarts of carne seca in my freezer and a couple cans of green chile in my pantry, I think I'd cry myself to sleep. Santa Maria Oranienstrasse 170 For the record, I've also had disappointing food at Dolores (yes, the quality of the tortilla is important, even in Cal-Mex) and Tipica (actually worse the the meal I had at La Paz in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the old-style Mexican joints possibly Bangladeshi-owned more than six years ago when my now-husband was trying to show me how cosmopolitan the Berlin food scene was - I must really like him to have moved here after that meal).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Martinique: Ich wusste es schon (aber wirklich)

I've walked or biked past the Martinique Restaurant & Cafe many times and never had any desire whatsoever to eat there. Actually, I never thought it had anything to do with the Caribbean island other than a shared name. I was quite surprised to find out that the restaurant offers a "surprising and refreshing" mix of the cuisines from Germany's Baden region and the island of Martinique. Well, that's what the website says anyway. Martinique the Restaurant looks like (and basically is) your standard Eckkneipe or corner bar, which in Germany usually means a smoky establishment serving mostly beer, frequented by locals. These kinds of places are never trendy or fancy, they're often on the dingy or tacky side (blinky gambling machines and bad lighting), and for the most part, the only decent thing you can count on getting is beer. Sometimes, as in the case of Martinique, basic food is on offer - it's usually not homemade or very good (at least in these parts). So, I have to give Martinique credit for doing something a little different (apparently the owner has family in Martinique). Still, the menu has three supposedly Martinique items: a salad with pineapple, mango, and shrimp; fried potato wedges with Caribbean dipping sauces; and a wrap that sounded a lot like a burrito with ground beef and corn. The wrap wasn't available on the night we visited - alas. Mein Mann's meal came with potato wedges and dipping sauces - maybe you only get the Caribbean dips if you order them a la carte, but glooey red sauce from the Asian foods store (Germans LOVE this glop) and some frightening mayonaisey substance do not scream Caribbean to me. Nor are they homemade as the menus claims. Details....I tried to order something from Martinque, I really did. But potato wedges (from the freezer I might add) do not a dinner make and I am squeamish about cheap frozen shrimp, which was definitely going to be the case in the Martinque salad. I ordered Maultaschen Suppe (a brothy soup with German ravioli), which is most definitely from Baden. It was about as bad as I had expected. As fun as a Baden-Martinique restaurant sounds (and I'm guessing this is probably the only one in existence?).....nothing on the menu would be remotely recognizable as typical to someone from Martinique. If the Baden dishes were any good, I might be able to let the Martinique food slide (a little), but they are pretty awful. In keeping with standard Eckkneipe food, but that help much in my book. Sad, sad, sad. Martinique Restaurant & Cafe Monumentenstrasse 29

Friday, February 8, 2013

Mazedonien: ich wusste es schon

Why a German restaurant pretending to be an Italian restaurant is even bothering to call itself Restaurant Macedonia is beyond me. I'm not a total idiot and I do bring my low expectation every time I go out in this city, but I felt I couldn't skip Macedonia because I sort of skipped Luxembourg and have major guilt. In my defense Alt Luxembourg doesn't make any claims to serve actual Luxembourgian food, although from what I gather, Luxembourgian cuisine is sort of a Franco-German mishmash, so who knows? The website doesn't explain why it's called that, but I think it may have to do with a previous use for the building that now houses the restaurant. Anyway, it's expensive and apparently was once a very well-regarded spot, back when Charlottenburg was trendy...but the odds of it actually being good enough to justify the prices, just seemed too slim. Sorry.
I probably would have also passed Macedonia by if it wasn't mere feet from the Lichterfelde West S-Bahn station, which I had to go by anyway. I popped in for lunch and it was fine. Not the worst meal I've had this week. The place is run by actual Macedonians, speaking what I presume was Macedonian (it certainly wasn't German or Italian) to each other, the waitress was having her lunch while I had mine - a big chunk of feta, a fried egg, a bunch of olives and a hunk of bread. I was tempted to ask if I could have what she had, but decided to stick to the menu, most of which is Italian: the standard pasta dishes, pizzas, involtini and saltimboca, etc. Oddly, all the specials of the day were German: pork roast with potatoes and red cabbage and Koenigsberger Klopse (a classic dish of meatballs in a creamy caper sauce) and literally all the other customers, who I might add were a good 30+ years older than me, were eating the German specials. Ever the rebel, I stuck to the small Macedonian portion of the menu, your standard Balkan options: cevapcici (old friend), kebab-type things served with rice, etc. Not so much in the mood for cheap meat, I ordered a Macedonian bean dish, gravce tavce, which I later learned is the Macedonian national dish. It's basically a white bean stew, apparently with as many variations as there are Macedonian housewives. At Restaurant Macedonia they use gigante beans, cooked in a tomato-y sauce with peppers and onions, warmed under the broiler with sprinkling of feta cheese. It's a simple dish and it wasn't half bad, though it was over-salted. Not something I would trek across town for by any means, but not a horrible lunch on a snowy winter day. I can't help but wish the Macedonians at Restaurant Macedonia were pushing their cuisine a bit more. It's not as if Berlin needs another mediocre Italian or German restaurant, but judging by the elderly clientele ordering plates and plates of Koenigsberger Klopse, I guess they've concluded that gravce tavce and cevapcici alone don't pay the bills. Restaurant Macedonia Hans-Sachs-Strasse 4f