If there’s ones thing I’ve learned over the last year, it must be that there are few edible things capable of stirring emotions more than spicy Sichuan-style noodles. It was late 2018 when an unusually enthusiastic post by Hilda Hoy (by my accounts one of the most knowledgeable and unforgiving experts on Chinese cuisine in Berlin) brought me to a restaurant in Mitte called Liu 成都味道. One meal later, my perception on the matter of Sichuan noodles had changed, I posted a few photos on Instagram and Berlin was hit by a minor food earthquake. The epicentre of this red hot noodle quake can be tracked to an unassuming venue on Kronenstraße, just off Friedrichstraße, the main blood vessel of the Mitte business district. This is a barren restaurant land where previously, during lunchtimes, you’d see hungry bankers and lawyers scavenge the streets for cheap burritos and pasta joints. Now though, they can eat at one of the finest Chinese restaurants Berlin has ever seen – yes, Liu is really THAT good. Or to put it in the words of Hilda Hoy, who’s infamous caption summarizes most people’s first taste of Liu: “I swear the skies opened, tears of rapture ran down my cheeks, and the angels sang hallelujah.” That’s right. That good.
“Now though, they can eat at one of the finest Chinese restaurants Berlin has ever seen – yes, Liu is really THAT good.”
Chinese cuisine has been on the rise in Berlin over the last years and in comparison to, for example, Japanese or Korean cuisine, I’ve seen a strong understanding within the Chinese community that there is market for un-westernized cuisine based on great ingredients. It’s 2019 and we live in one, single food universe where every piece of food knowledge is spread throughout the digital ether in the matter of seconds – people know how to look for quality and what the real deal looks and tastes like. Liu is the culmination of this development, a restaurant that sprang out of the marriage between Linqian Liu and Bernard Sroka, a Chengdu native and a German engineer with an appetite for the fiery cuisine of the Chinese South West. They started selling cold Chinese starters to the local Chinese community in Berlin on WeChat and opening Liu was the natural progression for them.
“Chinese cuisine has been on the rise in Berlin over the last years”
Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province and aside from being home to the world’s largest panda population, this part of China is also famous for its cuisine – intense and spicy foods fuelled by the local Sichuan peppers and chilli. Liu is all about the true soul of Sichuan, selling a very limited but finely tuned menu of noodles and dumpling plates for lunch, every day of the week. If you find a line stretching out the door don’t be alarmed, you’re surrounded by fellow noodle lovers looking for their fix. Order at the bar (pay later) and then have a seat. Your first inquiry should be whether they still have any “Tianshui” (‘Sweet Water Noodles”) available – these are the only noodles they make fresh from scratch every day, and since it’s a limited batch they usually run out within an hour of opening. Once you get them, you’ll understand why. Thick, knife-cut noodles placed on top of sweet and spicy sauce with crispy chilli flakes, minced garlic and the omnipresent, numbing Sichuan pepper powder. What might look simple at a first glance will, after a proper stir, turn into a magically glistering bowl of sauce-coated, volcanic red noodles, ready to be gobbled down in chilli-oil splattering bliss.
Even if you don’t score the Tianshui noodles, there’s still an abundance of other goodness on this menu. Why not have the thin Zajiang Noodles with minced pork? Or the fire Shengjiao Beef noodles that come with the optional mountain of fresh chilli? Not only are the noodles world class here, but the dumplings are as well and the “Chao Shou” come in the same, unimaginably tasty chill oil. Personally, I always order a small side bowl of Chao Shou (called “Zhong Shui Jiao” on the menu) with my noodles, that way I don’t choose between them. Needless to say, these kick Lon Men’s chilli wontons of their throne as the best chilli dumplings in Berlin (a strong contender is soon-to-open Chung King Noodles in Kreuzberg) And if you’re not up for anything spicy at all, just go for the clear-broth Shiitake Noodle soups. Zero spice, but plenty of flavor.
“..a magically glistering bowl of sauce-coated and volcanic red noodles, ready to be gobbled down in chilli-oil splattering bliss.”
While the lunch noodle service at Liu is outstanding, the best might still be to come from this place. Behind the scenes, the restaurant is gearing up to fulfil its true prophecy, which is to add a Chengdu-style hot pot (Chuan Chuan Xiang) dinner service. Forget everything you know about regular Chinese hot pot because the Chengdu-style is hot pot on chilli crack with a hot pot liquid made out of beef fat, a boatload of chilli and hot pot skewers that come in the hundreds on wooden sticks. I’ve had the privilege to test the mind-blowing Chuan Chuan at Liu in a private setting and I’m convinced that once the restaurant has the capacity to launch dinner service again (this was a test trial), Berlin will be struck by a Chuan Chuan craze.
Until then be in time for the lunch line, mix your noodles well, and don’t wear white clothing.