Historians pinpoint 2017-2018 as the time of Berlin’s Great Ramening, that crucial tipping point when decent-quality Japanese soup in the German capital went from rarity to ubiquity. Years went by with nary a challenger to Cocolo, the Mitte (and Kreuzberg) institution that first showed Berliners there was more to “ramen” than YumYum packets. Then, all of a sudden, we couldn't walk a block without stumbling upon a storefront shilling homemade noodles and creamy broth. Whether it was any good was another story.
For those of us paying attention, one newcomer stood out: Hako, opened in September 2017. It was as if someone had teleported an honest-to-goodness Japanese ramen-ya straight into the German capital, from the manga issues piled up on the giant wooden bar to the misspelled English on the menu to the bandana-clad chefs calling out orders in the steamy open kitchen. That vibe remains to this day, though the name is different. No longer do you have to worry about mistakenly sending noodle-loving friends to the (far inferior) Hako restaurants in Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg. Now, you can just tell them to go to Niko Niko.
The menu has also expanded over the years, ballooning to 14(!) different ramen options. You can’t really go wrong with any of them, but I’ll cast my vote for the tonkotsu gyokai, which combines the ubiquitous cloudy pork bone stock, cooked here for up to 10 hours, with a second broth made from dried sardines. The mega-broth’s uncompromising funkiness might not be for everyone – let’s just say that if your bedroom preferences resemble DJ Khaled’s, you maybe ought to steer clear – but if you can roll with it, it’ll win you over for life. It’s topped, like most Hako bowls, with delicately marbled pinwheels of pork chashu, wood ear mushrooms, pink pickled ginger, and half of a perfectly jammy soy-sauce-marinated boiled egg.
“ Non-vegans can supplement it with half an egg; the truly sacrilegious can throw some pork slices in there as well.
If you’re not a sardine fan, go for the intensely piggy classic tonkotsu or the sledgehammer-like tan tan men: ground meat with sesame paste, chili oil and bok choy, served here in regular and black sesame variations (no difference to speak of, other than that the latter is, you know, sooo Berlin). Or, hell, go vegan. The veggie tonkotsu, thickened with soybeans to mimic the original’s collagen-rich mouthfeel, is shockingly good, as umami-packed as its meat counterpart with a noticeable but not unpleasant soy milk aftertaste. In place of chashu, you get sliced eggplant, as silky as the (excellent) braised version that’s offered as a starter. Non-vegans can supplement it with half an egg; the truly sacrilegious can throw some pork slices in there as well.
After five-plus years of recommending Hako to anyone who’d listen, I now have to add the qualifier that that somewhere along the line, they seem to have switched noodle suppliers. Hako imports its noodles from Japan, which is no knock against it (homemade is not always an indicator of quality, as certain lesser Berlin ramen spots can attest to), but the current specimens are markedly thinner than in days past. Meaning that, now more than ever, this is not a place to have a first date or catch up with the gang. From the moment you’re served, the clock is ticking, and every minute you spend talking about how awesome your startup is or that cute thing your cat did, you’re losing the war against sogginess.
“ ...Every minute you spend talking about that cute thing your cat did, you’re losing the war against sogginess.
A steaming bowl of broth loses its appeal in summer. That's where the specials menu comes in, where you might find a compulsively slurpable chilled shoyu ramen with chicken chashu, tomato and a squeeze of lime. Niko Niko is also one of the only Berlin ramen restaurants that regularly offers tsukemen aka "dipping ramen". You get one bowl of thick, almost square-shaped noodles adorned with chashu and ginger, plus another of hyperconcentrated broth: that same tonkotsu gyokai, rendered into a murky sludge. On its own, it’s way too salty; eaten as it should be, as a sauce that you dip the noodles into, it’s… well, still pretty salty, until you're about halfway through and the waitstaff kindly allows you to dilute it with a light stock called soup-wari. Do not skip out on the soup-wari.
Is there better ramen in Berlin? Yes, certain noodle nerds have undeniably pushed the game forward with their impeccably crafted, small-batch bowls, but when it comes to the full experience, Niko Niko still hits the top spot for me. You might not be able to afford a trip to Japan, but you can come here, squeeze in at the bar, sip a mug of umeshu (plum liqueur) and slurp tonkotsu like your life depends on it. Trust me, it's the next best thing.