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Neukölln’s döner depths

It's late. You ate dinner hours ago, but all that alcohol in there is getting lonely, and even if you're not really hungry, you still want it. We found someone to try five Neukölln döners, all costing less than €2. In 90 minutes.

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Conor O’Rourke

You know the feeling. It’s late. You ate dinner hours ago, but all that alcohol in there is getting lonely, and even if you’re not really hungry, you still want it. How much longer is this night bus gonna take, anyway?

The sign glows yellow and red in the darkness: “€1.50 Döner Angebot”. It can’t actually be good, can it? Ask no more. We found someone to try five Neukölln döners, all costing less than €2. In 90 minutes.

Our brave test subject, Michael, has recently arrived from California and is relatively inexperienced in the ways of the döner. A fresh perspective is sometimes necessary, especially when dealing with food whose own freshness can be questionable.

He prepared for his ordeal by consuming a strict regimen of Sternburg and vodka for the 12 hours preceding the experiment. It was 10pm. He was in high spirits.

Döner one: This one looks pretty gnarly. The tapered cylinder of Dönerfleisch is deeply browned, almost black, and angular, with a huge fatty deposit at the top dripping grease down onto the meat below. The smell of lamb hangs thickly in the air. Red and white cabbage, cucumber, and tomato form a neon colored rainbow in the fluorescent lighting.

“This one’s super good,” Michael says. He’s feeling fresh, even if the döner isn’t. “I don’t know if the meat is pork or veal or slim jims or what but I got no complaints. I guess it could use cheese. Yeah, I wish it had cheese,” he pauses, pulling a piece of red cabbage from his mouth.

“It’s half cabbage. Or whatever the hell this is, I dunno. Purple.” He laughs. “It’s half purple.” He frowns at the cup of Ayran that came with the döner. “They gave me a glass of milk or something here? What’s going on?”

Price: €1.50 (with free Ayran)

Score: 4/5

Tekbir Imbiss | Hermannstraße 178, U-bhf Leinestraße

Döner two: Michael bounds merrily to the next shop on the list, only pausing briefly to refill on Sterni. “Oh, this one looks bad” he says, gazing at the gray trapezoid of veal rotating in the window. It does.

“Wow, look at his power shaver” he marvels, as the döner man shaves off strips of meat, “I guess he like, needs to be really efficient.” After receiving the döner, he pauses to reflect: “I wonder what kind of meat this is. It looks like sausage meat, but it tastes more like hot dog. Which is a sausage I guess. There’s no discernible meat texture here, just crunchiness from where it got crispy. There’s more cucumber in this one.”

He takes a bite, washing it down with a swig of vodka from the bottle he’s hiding under the table. “I think the salad is really on display here. It could use more meat. If I wanted a salad, I wouldn’t have bought a döner, I would have bought a salad, right?”

Price: €1.50

Score: 2.5/5

Antalya Grill | Hermannstraße 73, U-bhf Leinestraße

Döner three: This one is actually on the menu as a Schawarma, the restaurant being more of the Arabic than Turkish persuasion. It has essentially the same ingredients as a döner, but in a pita-type bread. This time it’s clearly chicken meat, glistening serenely on its spit, waiting for Michael.

Only the guy doesn’t bother to cut fresh meat off, instead scooping some dried-out, already cut pieces from around the bottom into the bread.

“This tastes like it’s been under a heat lamp too long. It’s chicken, but only barely.” Michael observes. “It’s basically the same as a döner, but there’s some kind of funny pink pickle in here too. It’s nice to change it up once in a while. I think it’s awesome, I like this place.”

His ability to stay positive after three döners is inspiring. If I only knew.

Price: €2

Score: 4.5/5

Falafelooo | Hermannstraße 37, U-bhf Boddinstraße

Döner four: At Hermannplatz, we stumble upon another €1.50 döner completely by accident. Michael spots it first, pointing excitedly at the veal column shining in the florescent lights. After receiving the döner, however, his enthusiasm quickly wanes.

“This one is like mostly bread” he said, chewing his fourth of the evening, “There’s like barely any meat in here. I wish I could be eating chicken instead of this weird hot dog sausage stuff again.”

Still puzzled by the mystery meat, he looks sad for a second, chewing, and then narrows his eyes. “This one is really sweet. It tastes like doughnuts. Like, glazed… you know, I’ve always found the idea of eating myself sick oddly compelling.”

He’s starting to get philosophical. When consumed in extreme quantities, it appears döner could possibly have adverse psychedelic affects, in addition to the usual digestive ones.

“Much like drinking too much or smoking too much pot, it’s just been attractive to me from a like, hedonistic standpoint. This is really sweet. I think they added sugar to it. I’ll probably have a döner hangover in the morning.”

He drops the döner onto the table and begins dissecting it with his fingers, fishing individual pieces of meat out of the soggy bread. “I’m not even enjoying this. We’re done here,” he announces, slapping the table with greasy hands. One thing we can take away from this exercise right now: if it’s veal, it ain’t ideal.

Price: €1.50

Score: 2/5

Ballica Kebap | Sonnenallee 6, U-Bhf Hermannplatz

Döner five: On the way to our next target, Michael appears to be tiring. He’s walking slower, and has ceased drinking beer, for anyone that knows him a sure sign that something’s amiss. His face is bright pink and glistens with grease.

We arrive at Star Spätkauf, our final destination, as it were. They refuse to sell us the €1 Kinderdöner, pointing out Michael’s obvious age and level of intoxication. We settle for the Kleinedöner, but only grudgingly. Michael’s clearly disappointed.

“This one is like a smaller version of a chicken döner,” he observes, liberally shaking chili flakes onto the sandwich, “I appreciate the chicken… but the onions just taste like vodka now, it’s fucking me up.” He looks nauseous, but doesn’t slow down.

“This one has a great curry sauce going on… Holy shit, what’s that?!” He pulls a french fry from somewhere in the sandwich’s moist interior, greedily shoving it into his mouth. The vodka onions are instantly forgotten, replaced by the hurried search for more secret fries.

After finishing the sandwich, he leans back. “It got rough in the middle part there for a while. But I feel pretty good about myself after finishing this one. The surprise french fries saved me.”

Price: €1.50

Score: 4/5

Star Spätkauf 33 | Sonnenallee 33, U-bhf Hermannplatz

We can’t all hope for such heroic digestive fortitude. Thankfully for us, we don’t have to. There are a few lessons one can take away from this.

Veal döner meat, distinguished by its uniform smooth texture and unnatural pinkish gray color, is clearly inferior to chicken or the very rare lamb döner. The other ingredients – vegetables, bread, and sauce – seem reassuringly consistent in their quality and freshness.

A cheap döner won’t hurt you. When confronted with a veal döner, walk the extra 150 meters to the next shop. Other than that, you’re safer than you probably thought.