Why do Turkish kebabs star at a restaurant called 'The Berliner'?

Eating on the Edge: Love is the answer, of course, with a little politics, immigration, and labor history thrown in.

Crosscut archive image.

Victor Twu, owner of The Berliner

Eating on the Edge: Love is the answer, of course, with a little politics, immigration, and labor history thrown in.

Across the street from the Crosscut office on First Avenue South is a curious restaurant with a German name and Turkish food.

The Berliner serves the quintessential German-by-way-of-Turkey street food, doner kebab, which is similar to the American-Greek sandwich we call the gyro. The Berliner opened four months ago, shortly after city crews began excavating outside the building to install ductwork for power lines that will be moved from Alaskan Way to First Avenue in preparation for the viaduct replacement project.

Because of the construction, Main Street can be crossed only on the east side of First Avenue. If you happen to be standing on the west side of First Avenue, the path to The Berliner is circuitous and tedious, just enough, perhaps, to dissuade a diner on the fence, uninitiated to the joy of doner kebab. If only that diner knew the mystical and unknowable odds this restaurant overcame to exist in the first place.

The story of doner kebab in Germany is a story of labor shortages and mass immigration, of isolation and assimilation, and the total triumph of a single food over its adoptive nation. Doner kebab, slices of lamb with vegetables and yogurt sauce sandwiched in flatbread, is probably the easiest food to find in Germany, and the most often eaten. It is served in train stations, market squares, and corner stands, in sit-down restaurants and from street carts, often 24 hours a day. It is in Germany what pizza and burritos are in America, foreign dishes adapted and then embraced so tightly and for so long, they became our own.

The story of doner kebab in Seattle — it is, unlike the gyro, almost unheard of here — is really a love story about Jeanette and Victor and how their improbable romance across two oceans spawned a doner kebab shop in Pioneer Square.

For six years, Victor Twu, 33, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, owned and operated a Quiznos franchise from this same storefront at First and Main. The challenge of running a sandwich franchise in a declining neighborhood was made even harder when the recession hit a few years ago. Twu had long wanted to create a restaurant of his own, free of the obligations of being a franchisee; he just did not know what he wanted to sell.

In the fall of 2009, in need of relaxation and inspiration — “I needed some time to look out for No. 1,” he said — he decided to take a three-week trip, alone, to Thailand. Midway through his trip he boarded a small tour van going around the island of Koh Samui. On the van, he met another tourist, a young lawyer from Berlin named Jeanette, who, like himself, was traveling alone.

The attraction and chemistry were “as instant as you can get,” Twu said. “We met up later that evening and from then on we were never apart until she left five days later.

“I feel almost like I won the Lotto. You meet so many people who live in your own city, you date them, and it never seems to work out, and then you go clear across the world and just happen upon somebody who seems perfect. What are the odds? I’d like to pose this question to a statistician.”

After the vacation ended and the two returned to their respective homes, the relationship continued over web cams and Skype. Several weeks later, Twu traveled to Berlin and visited Jeanette. (She has asked that her last name not be used.) While there, the first meal he ate was currywurst (pork sausage seasoned with curry powder) and a doner kebab, which his girlfriend had purchased from a stand at the train station.

“Those are the first two items a lot of Berliners would ask a visitor to try,” said Twu, who grew up in Federal Way and had never visited Germany before. “I had never even thought of going to Germany. The only reason I went was to see my now fiancée. If I had not met her, I would have never known what a doner was.”

Within months of his first visit to Germany, Twu resigned the franchise to open his new shop, which he decided would serve German-style doner kebab.

Turkish immigrants started arriving in Germany in the 1960s as guest workers, to bolster the country’s labor force during its post-war economic boom. Most of the immigrants were poor and uneducated, from the rural regions of the country rather than from cities like Istanbul and Ankara, recruited for low-skill jobs on assembly lines. Those jobs led to homes and children, and more immigrants stayed than returned. Today, Germany is home to about 3 million people of Turkish origin, about one-third of whom are German citizens.

While some Turkish-Germans have successfully assimilated, most have not for one reason or another. The general view in Germany is that most residents of Turkish descent are not well-integrated into German society. Speaking of her country’s Turkish residents, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that the attempt to build a multi-cultural society in Germany has “utterly failed,” according to a recent BBC report on rising anti-immigrant sentiments in Germany.

While lines have been drawn in German society over culture, religion (most Turks are Muslim), and particularly language — a large number of Turkish immigrants do not speak German — there is agreement and unanimity over one consequence of the Turkish wave: doner kebab, the unofficial comfort food of Germany. According to the Associated Press, doner kebab is a $3.3 billion business in Turkey, employing 60,000 people and accounting for 15,500 restaurants.

In Turkey, doner kebab refers to thin slices of lamb roasted on a vertical spit. It is not necessarily a sandwich but a plate of lamb served with tomatoes, peppers, bread, and perhaps rice. Doner kebab evolved into a sandwich in Germany, where the lamb is typically dressed with onions, tomatoes, lettuce, pickled red cabbage and a garlicky yogurt sauce.

The doner kebab sandwich has sprung up all over Europe (along with its Arab version, the shawarma) in slightly different forms. The bread and toppings might be different, or the flavor of sauce. Kebab stands are also popular in Canadian and Australian cities, even Asian cities. In some ways, it has become the world’s fast food, perhaps rivaled only by pizza. Doner kebab is not as popular in the United States, perhaps because of the prevalence of the Greek gyro, or perhaps because Turkish and Arab immigrants have not spread across America in the same numbers as Mexican immigrants or Chinese immigrants.

Most of Twu’s customers are not familiar with doner kebab and are confused by its German associations.

“I tell them really it’s Turkish, but it’s like how pizza is American food,”  Twu said.

Kebab shops in Berlin, Twu said, try to put their own spin on their sandwiches, usually by offering a unique sauce or adding an unusual ingredient or two. Fast, cheap and always available in Berlin, the doner (pronounced doo-nah in German) quickly became Twu’s favorite meal when visiting his girlfriend.

“I liked it so much, I had to tell myself not to eat it,” he said. “I had to tell myself I just had one and I should eat something different.”

His favorite doner shop was a place called Mustafa’s in the Kreutzburg neighborhood of Berlin, near the former Berlin Wall, where most of the city’s Turkish immigrants reside. He modeled his restaurant after Mustafa’s.

He purchased his vertical roaster from a company in Chicago, where, he discovered, almost all the vertical spits sold in the U.S. are made. Most of the lamb consumed in the U.S. was raised in Australia, which is where The Berliner’s lamb comes from. Twu thinly slices the leg meat and marinates it overnight before layering it into a huge cylinder for the spit.

His menu is relatively simple, with eight versions of a doner ($5.99-$6.99) that he also serves as a small wrap for a few dollars less. His sandwiches can be made with either lamb or chicken, the latter being a concession to American appetites. To appeal to a wider audience, Twu Americanized his menu by adding salads and several versions of doner you would probably not find in Germany or Europe, like the version that comes with mandarin oranges, the one that comes with mango, and the sandwich made with pressed tofu.

His two most traditional doner kebabs are the namesake Berliner doner, which comes with meat, tomato, cucumber, pickled red cabbage, onions, garlic yogurt sauce and cilantro, and the Mehringdamm doner (named for the street Mustafa’s was on), to which he added feta cheese and spinach. Cilantro, he said, was his own special “Seattle touch” and something you don’t usually find in a German doner.

Twu concocts all his own sauces. His chili yogurt sauce and mint yogurt sauce can be ordered with any sandwich. All are served on a German style flatbread custom made by a baker in Kent. Light, chewy, and slightly crunchy, the flatbread is speckled with sesame and caraway seeds and tastes unlike any other sandwich bread in the city.

Evangelizing doner kebab to Seattle is difficult from his current location, which is open, for now, only in the afternoon. His plans are to expand to a second store in South Lake Union, in the space of another former Quiznos.

Meanwhile, the romance that started it all has stood the test of living nine time zones apart for more than a year. Jeanette, who will arrive in Seattle for a visit this weekend, works for a German airline, making travel more convenient and affordable for the couple. The two have seen each other every six to eight weeks.

Their plans are to get married — they have not set a date or location, although they are considering Thailand — and live together in Seattle, where if things work out, Jeanette will join her husband in running a doner shop.

If you go: The Berliner, 221 First Ave. S., 206-838-0339. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.