Cultural exchanges between America and Germany have been rich, indeed. We gave them David Hasselhoff and McDonald's. They have given us Kraftwerk and, just recently here in Portland, döner kebab. We got the better end of the deal.
If you haven't been to Berlin lately, then you probably haven't experienced döner kebab—currently the most popular fast food in Germany. Luckily, a small downtown mom-and-pop shop, with the no-nonsense name Döner Kebab and German Cuisine, has started serving the delicacy alongside a variety of German specialties. Consider it the autobahn of skewered meats.
Döner is much like gyros: essentially marinated meat cooked slowly on a vertical rotisserie. Thin slices are shaved from the rotating kebab and placed into either a wrap or an oval-shaped, ciabatta-like flatbread with shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, and yogurt sauce.
To be fair, döner originated in Turkey and was imported to Germany by immigrants sometime in the mid-1980s. So, it's not precisely German. More an amalgamation of German and Turkish food traditions; let's call it "Gerkish."
Döner Kebab will likely suffer from its pesky umlaut—most commonly seen on posters for death metal bands and Ikea furniture boxes—as well as an odd location with little parking and too much bus traffic. Also, few people are familiar with döner. The refrain in the menu that reads, "similar to gyros meat, but better," is an understatement at best.
The döner kebab sandwich is a marvel. Made here with turkey, the meat is salty, tender, and just fatty enough to be utterly satisfying. Paired with a spicy yogurt sauce, the juice of the meat slowly soaks into the fresh-made pocket bread with a rich and lightly spicy sop. This is perfect fast food: dynamic and packed with flavor. Add a side of fries (the common Berlin accompaniment) and you have a filling meal for less than nine bucks.
Döner can also be served in the traditional dish known as Iskender. It combines döner kebab with bread cubes, tomato sauce, and yogurt sauce. On the plate with an Anaheim pepper garnish it's intimidating. In the mouth, it's serious grub. The tomato sauce and yogurt offer a nice balance of base and acidity to the salty turkey, and when the Anaheim pepper is thrown into the mix, the flavor is elongated with green vegetable tones.
The German cuisine of Döner Kebab is just as adventurous. Take sauerbraten, for example. Having never tried the dish, the server warned me: "It's an acquired taste." Yep. But I enjoyed the incredibly tender marinated roast beef and the accompanying tangy sauce with its notes of raisin, apple, and perhaps a little cinnamon. The strange cumulous pile of dumpling was puzzling, though, tasting like nothing much. I was informed it was intended to help soak up the sauce, which didn't necessarily help their cause. However, the red sauerkraut was adequate, hovering just inside the border of sweet.
Don't be frightened by the mid '90s furniture store interior or the constant barrage of light rock. These folks have brought to Portland one of the better German imports in recent memory. Here it comes, like a trans-Europe express, straight into your gullet.