With one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam, a steaming bowl of hot Phở is never more than a block away in Berlin. But just like the Döner Kebab, the Berlin version of the South East Asian rice noodle soup has become a cheap commodity in everyday life that’s usually pretty average. With a dish stuck in mediocracy, it always takes someone special to make it unstuck.
“With a dish stuck in mediocracy, it always takes someone special to make it unstuck.”
There are not an awful many successful restaurant groups in Berlin. And there are even fewer successful restaurant empires. One of these is Duc Ngo’s great empire of Asian restaurants in Berlin. Few restaurateurs have put a bigger mark on the Berlin restaurant scene than Ngo and it would be far from an exaggeration to call him the godfather of sushi and Asian fusion cuisine as we know them and eat them in Berlin today. One my favourite restaurants in his group is a place that doesn’t serve sushi but instead honours Ngo’s culinary roots. We’re talking about the Vietnamese-French Brasserie Madame Ngo in Charlottenburg, the manifestation of Ngo’s food heritage and truly one of the most interesting Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin. And this is the story behind it.
“Few restaurateurs have put a bigger mark on the Berlin restaurant scene than Ngo”
Born in Hanoi, Duc Ngo came to Berlin in 1979 at the age of five in the course of an immigration wave of Chinese Boat People, a minority with Chinese roots that weren’t very welcome in Vietnam in the wake of the war. His culinary awakening came about when he started working at ‘Sushi Berlin’, Berlin’s first sushi bar that employed Japanese chefs. Young Ngo trained with these Japanese chefs and fell in love. After plenty of other work stations he laid the foundation of his restaurant empire by opening ‘Kuchi’ in 1999 on Kantstraße, a project, which essentially created a whole new restaurant vertical serving California style sushi alongside Vietnamese dishes in a fun and casual atmosphere. 18 years later every second block in Pberg and Mitte boasts a Vietnamese restaurant with that style, but Ngo started it.
He continued his successful row of openings with an unprecedented ability to predict trends, another example is the opening of Cocolo Ramen in 2005 over a decade before the ramen craze hit the city wth full force. But after ten years of immense success in East Berlin and a couple of years away from his hometown, he staged a glorious homecoming to his childhood district around Kantstraße with the opening of Madame Ngo.
“…it’s not hard to imagine this restaurants on a steaming hot street of Hanoi’s old town.”
“Madame Ngo is an hommage and love expression to my parent, my family and the country and the city of Hanoi where I was born” Duc Ngo describes his restaurant and passionately explains how the stunning Vietnamese Brasserie on Kantstraße showcases the legacy of the 100-year long era of French colonialism on Vietnamese food culture. Located in a former pharmacy on Kantstraße, right next to his very first restaurant, you should look for the massive pots of Phô simmering away in the storefront. Inside you’ll find yourself in a beautiful and magnificent restaurant space full of green plants and wooden furniture and flanked by a wall of the raw bricks of the house and it’s not hard to imagine this restaurants on a steaming hot street of Hanoi’s old town.
“Madame Ngo is an hommage and love expression to my family and the country and the city of Hanoi where I was born”
Madame Ngo was originally designed to feature a lot more French dishes compared to what you will see today. This concept didn’t go down with the West Berlin crowd and one year later the menu focuses on Vietnamese fare with a couple of French features, for example a Tarte Tartin for dessert. Today the Pho soups are at the heart of the menu at Madame Ngo and really the most important reason the visit this establishment. Duc Ngo had a chef from Nam Ding just North of Hanoi come in and consult him on the art of Pho. Nam Ding is very famous for Northern style Pho, the version that’s very clear and doesn’t use as many spices and sugar as down South. The secret for a great Pho turned out to be quite simple, all you needed was a shitload of great quality meat and bones. For the Pho Ga they use French organic chicken and for the Pho Bo they German beef and the recipe is simple: For every 100 liters of soup at Madame Ngo you use 20kg of bones. No less.
“The secret for a great Pho turned out to be quite simple, all you needed was a shitload of great quality meat and bones.”
The result is unique, the soups are packed with flavour from the first to the last sip and the meat a true delight to eat, be it the succulent chicken or the raw strips of beef steak in my favourite soup the Phở bò tái. The rest of the food does not reach the same levels of excellency, but is never the less a very entertaining mix of delights. Like the Hainan Chicken, a dish with Chinese origins that you will find across Asia and whose centrepiece is a perfectly steamed breast of chicken. or the Trois Couchons, the three varieties of pork (braised, cooked, grilled) that will satisfy any pork cravings. The Banh Mi baguettes are for my taste to close to the original versions served on Vietnamese streets with a slightly too dry bread.
“The result is some of the best fried spring rolls in the city, perfectly crunchy and fresh”
A dish you can’t miss at Madame Ngo are the Nam deep fried spring rolls. In a unique logistical setup Duc’s aunt will every week pick up the very best rice paper sheets from a market in Hanoi and then hand them over to a friend who regularly flies to Germany. The result are some of the best fried spring rolls in the city, perfectly crunchy and fresh, and chefs from all districts venture to Madame Ngo for this unique treat.
In a city that consumes as much Phở noodle soups as we do, Madame Ngo deserves a lot more respect than it does. Because even if you don’t buy into the French-Vietnamese concept, the quality and love that goes into the food here is 100% undeniable. And considering that nobody hesitates a second to spend 15€ on a gourmet burger or bowl of ramen, the price argument is also not one we need to have. So head on over to Kantstraße and look out for a couple of big pots boiling away in a window. You won’t regret it.