Do you know about the 5 euro lunch buffet at Tian Fu on Uhlandstrasse? Because if you don't, and you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night or at other, perhaps more appropriate times, dreaming desperately of the tongue-numbing, anise-like heat of the Sichuan peppercorn, not to mention the fire of a great Chinese chili, you should.
Wait, before I tell you about the lunch buffet, let's start at the beginning. Tian Fu. Uhlandstrasse. A real, honest-to-goodness Sichuanese restaurant in Berlin. Not as refined as some Sichuanese food I've had in New York, a little more sloppy and slapdash. But as hot and gutsy as you could long for, especially after one too many muted(emasculated?)-for-the-delicate-German-tastebud Asian meals.
Here, chili peppers abound. There are Sichuan peppercorns left, right and center. Do you ever need your meal to really hurt? This is where I go when that need strikes me.
(I don't love their soup-and-dumpling outpost on Berliner Strasse. The food they use there seems to be of inferior quality and their noodles, though advertised as handmade, aren't anything special.)
But back to the 5 euro lunch buffet. Every week day from 12:00 pm to 3:30 pm, they have this buffet set out. What you don't see in the photo below are two soups, hot & sour and a rotating one (this week it was some sort of egg drop), fried egg rolls and fried chicken, both of which I ignore (more on this in a second), boiled white rice, and a big bowl of shredded cabbage and carrots in vinegar.
My strategy: I start with a helping of hot & sour soup. It's nothing like the one I grew up eating at Chinese restaurants in Boston and New York, but it's hot hot hot and totally delicious (I have to sort of force myself not to get second helpings and I often fail miserably) in its own right. Then I ignore almost everything in the buffet cart. The noodles (up on the top right), the curry (on the top left) and the fried things I mentioned before that aren't in the picture - all of those I ignore. I tried the Chinese-style scrambled eggs with tomatoes on the bottom left once and they were fine, but I don't really need to go to a restaurant for those (thanks to Mark Bittman).
What I go for are the zucchini (next to the tomatoes and eggs), which are sliced on the bias and stir-fried with these great big dark red chilis, cut in half. The zucchini are sort of soft and sweet with a little kick of heat - delicious. I could eat a whole plate just of those. All the way on the far left bottom is another good one - it's little shreds of pork mixed with pieces of cabbage (I'm assuming it's Napa) and stir-fried with Sichuan peppercorns until everything is wilty and soft and very spicy and fragrant, with that wonderful numbing quality. Then, on the top, next to the curry that I've ignored, was a new dish to the buffet - more zucchini cut on the bias, but here they were mixed with chunks of faintly funky-tasting pressed tofu (be still my beating heart!) and shreds of fresh hot chiles that, once eaten, practically made my eyes water. I couldn't feel my inner cheek for a few minutes after eating one. Another dish of which I would have happily eaten an entire plate.
(Damn that second helping of soup!)
All the while, the restaurant plays awful Chinese-language soul music, which I sort of love because it reminds me of all those dirty little dives and markets I used to go to in Chinatown, and you might hear a waitress yelling at someone on the phone in Chinese interspersed with German in a pitch-perfect Berlin accent and there are framed black and white photos of rural China on the wall and my mouth is on fire (finally) and even though the food is oily as all get out, I don't care, because it tastes good and it is authentic, after all.
Which, if I'm honest, is what I really, truly crave. Well, besides a solid chili burn. I'm grateful to places like Tian Fu, few and far between in Berlin, that don't dumb down everything on their menu for the lowest common denominator. It allows me to hope that there might be some better-looking future for authentic ethnic dining in Berlin.
(I have a dream! That one day, Chinese restaurants in Berlin won't have to serve Thai For-Goodness-Sakes-Are-You-Kidding-Me curry!)
Aaaand now I'm starving. Good night!
Tel: (030) 861 3015