The Hunt for Japanese Food in Kreuzberg
When it comes to authentic Japanese restaurants in Berlin, it can sometimes feel hard to find the hidden gems worth a visit. One gets lost when the spectrum ranges from expensive fine dining – such as Shiori or Zenkichi – down to generic Asian restaurants on every neighbourhood corner. But we’re here to help you re-orientate yourself – this time round, with a guide for Japanese and sushi in Kreuzberg specifically.
While the best Japanese in Berlin seems to be concentrated in Mitte and the suburbs west of Tiergarten, we’ve found a small number of restaurants that have thankfully emerged in Kreuzberg. They’re cheerful eateries with cosy atmospheres, from sushi spots and ramen bars to izakaya-style bistros and bento box lunch havens.
Often staffed by Japanese people, these restaurants are bringing a piece of home into Berlin’s diverse dining scene. Not designed to draw in the masses (minus Cocolo Ramen), they instead boast a purpose of satisfying the Kreuzberg and Neukölln locals.
Eating out in Japan
One should note that dining in Japan is all about speciality restaurants. There’s no one restaurant that covers all the bases of Japanese cuisine; instead they focus on one type of food or style of dining. The Japanese are passionate about food and walking through Tokyo you’ll find exclusive yakitori bars, restaurants solely dedicated to tempura, bistros that only serve chicken and Michelin-star soba noodle restaurants.
While Berlin menus will obviously be more lenient, we suggest you follow a similar rule-of-thumb to get authentic food. In other words, avoid the Japanese restaurants that happen to also specialise in Vietnamese-Thai-Chinese dishes.
Cocolo Ramen X-berg
The best ramen in Berlin
Cocolo Ramen X-berg is undeniably the most popular Japanese restaurant in Kreuzberg and the undisputed champion of ramen in Berlin. However, what comes with such esteem is long lines and a lengthy wait time.
A member of the KUCHI hospitality group, led by esteemed chef and restaurateur Duc Ngo, Cocolo Ramen comfortably holds it own amongst its more sophisticated sister restaurants 893 Ryotei and KUCHI Kant. While those restaurants serve contemporary Japanese food, Cocolo Ramen takes a more traditional approach.
As mentioned, this place can get extraordinarily busy. But show a little patience and I promise you’ll be rewarded. Spread over two levels, the spacious dining room has communal tables and the restaurant sustains an atmosphere that’s always buzzing with energy, regardless of the hour. Despite the wait for a table, once seated and orders taken you’ll have a hot bowl of ramen before you in no time.
What to order
Cocolo’s menu is short and sweet, offering a handful of appetizers to start your meal and a small selection of Japanese liquor like sake, shochu rice schnapps or fruit-infused umeshu. I opted for the fresh grapefruit chūhai, a strong and refreshing drink of shochu and self-squeezed pink grapefruit juice.
There are seven types of ramen available and I recommend ordering a traditional variety. There’s shio salt-based broth with poached chicken, shoyu soy sauce-based broth with poached pork or Hokkaido-style miso broth with vegetables. The tantan and wantan non-traditional varieties are also worth a mention. The former features spicy ground meat influenced by Szechuan cuisine and the latter is a tasty Japanese-take on wonton soup.
I’m personally a sucker for tonkotsu ramen with its rich and hearty pork bone broth, a traditional variety from the Kyushu prefectures in southern Japan. Naturally, it’s what I went for when dining at Cocolo last and their version didn’t disappoint. It had all the essential and delicious elements of tonkotsu ramen – a flavoursome broth, noodles with a nice amount of chew, a perfect egg and smoky, sweet pork belly.
Cocolo Ramen X-berg, Gipsstraße 3, 10119 Berlin; Open: Monday to Saturday from 12 – 11pm
Traditional sushi in Kreuzberg
Sushi spots in Kreuzberg probably outnumber all the other Japanese restaurants in the area combined. However, you should definitely apply the age-old idiom “quality over quantity”. Sushi purists and those looking for the highest standard will need to travel further afield than Kreuzberg, unfortunately. Yet despite this, Musashi on Kottbusser Damm and Kissho Sushi on nearby Graefestraße are reliable bets if that sushi craving kicks in fast.
Musashi is the place to go for simple, traditional and affordable sushi. The menu is comprised of nigiri and maki rolls with minimal ingredients, as authentic Japanese sushi is designed to be. Varieties included octopus, salmon roe, eel, tofu, radish and avocado. I ordered maguro (tuna) and saba (mackerel) nigiri with a sake salmon maki roll. The rice had been lightly seasoned with sweet vinegar, as traditionally done, and while I wouldn’t recommend the mackerel I would definitely return for the tuna and salmon sushi.
More hole-in-the-wall than restaurant, Musashi is a no-frills location with funky decor and limited seats available. Yet service moves quick and the chefs freshly make the sushi with skilled haste. In my books, Musashi is a good place for a casual lunch or a quick bite when in the area.
Musashi, Kottbusser Damm 102, 10967 Berlin; Open: Monday to Saturday from 12 – 10:30pm, Sunday from 2 – 10pm
Western-style and decadent
If you’re after the Western version of sushi, then Kissho Sushi is the restaurant for you. By this I mean sushi that’s turned inside out, features cream cheese, is garnished with secret sauce or involves entire rolls being battered in tempura. I won’t lie, I enjoy it – but in no way is it authentically Japanese. Nevertheless, Kissho is well-practiced in making this type of sushi and they’re pleasing Kreuzberg locals with an extensive menu.
Dine here and you can feast on baked California rolls with salmon, avocado, surimi, mayonnaise and special sauce; or Ebi Tempura inside-out rolls with battered shrimp, cucumber, masago roe and sesame. Also note that if you do want the cleaner Japanese-style sushi, a nice selection of nigiri, maki and sashimi platters are available.
Kissho Sushi, Graefestraße 83, 10969 Berlin; Open: Monday to Sunday from 12 – 11pm
Izakaya-style dining near the canal
Life Berlin is my pick for the best Japanese in Kreuzberg. A cosy neighbourhood restaurant on Maybachufer, situated right by the canal, they specialise in izakaya-style Japanese cuisine. Informal bars found on nearly every street in Japan, izakayas are a combination of lively drinking establishment and delicious Japanese bar food.
Life Berlin brings that atmospheric vibe to Kreuzberg with its offering of deep-fried karaage chicken, fresh sashimi, yakitori skewers cooked over the robata grill, sake, whiskey highballs and chūhai shochu sours. The bar area and outdoor seating – perfect for summertime dining next to the canal – is dedicated to the izakaya offering only. However, Life Berlin’s restaurant area provides an opportunity for larger meals and more upscale Japanese cuisine.
I dined at lunchtime, when only a few menu items are available, and enjoyed a truly delicious pork katsu curry. The meat was juicy and tender, panko-crumbed coating crispy and curry sauce full of spiced flavour. In the evening, both à la carte and set menus are available. There’s everything from shabu shabu hot pots and rice bowls, to udon and soba noodles with tempura. Authentic and delicious, Life Berlin is well worth a visit.
Life Berlin, Maybachufer 39, 12047 Berlin; Open: Tuesday to Thursday from 6pm – late, Friday to Sunday from 12 – 3pm and 6pm – late
Go for bento boxes and okonomiyaki
Another izakaya-style restaurant in the area is Tsukushiya near Kottbusser Tor station. Modelling itself as a Japanese bistro, Tsukushiya serve izakaya-style food like gyoza dumplings and hiyayakko chilled tofu, as well as udon noodles and donburi rice bowls.
Tsukushiya dedicate lunch to the Japanese tradition of bento boxes and they offered three types when I visited – chicken gyoza, salmon in soy sauce and tofu in miso. I opted for the gyoza and was glad I did. The dumplings sat in a light vinegar sauce and were clearly handmade with a delicate dough and flavoursome filling.
For something different you can dine at dinner time and try okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake. Originally from the Hiroshima area, okonomiyaki often has squid, pork or cabbage filling and comes garnished in BBQ sauce, mayo and bonito flakes.
Tsukushiya, Dresdener Straße 16, 10999 Berlin; Open: Monday to Friday from 12 – 3pm and 6 – 11pm, Saturday from 6 – 11pm
A Japanese gem in Bergmannkiez
By now, you may feel that all the best Japanese restaurants in Kreuzberg are situated around Kottbusser Tor. However, over on the eastern side of Kreuzberg, the neighbourhood of Bergmannkiez is blessed to house Cocoro.
Part Japanese kitchen, part teahouse and part sake bar, this neighbourhood restaurant is both adorable and unassuming with its quality of food and drink. When I went for an early dinner on a Sunday night, Cocoro was crowded with locals enjoying a warm and casual atmosphere. It’s the type of place where every passerby walking along Mehringdamm lingered to look inside with curiosity and interest.
With a focus on high-quality and healthy ingredients, Cocoro showcase the refined and simple characteristics of Japanese cuisine. Flavours are clean yet delicious and the team have created a menu predominantly of donburi, udon noodles and teriyaki plates.
I started my meal with the traditional appetiser of agedashi tofu, a lightly battered and deep-fried piece of silken tofu sitting in a traditional Japanese dashi sauce. Flavoured by konbu seaweed, bonito smoked fish flakes, sake, mirin and soy sauce, this soupy broth was pure magic. I would gladly guzzle it down all day.
I then enjoyed the sake teriyaki donburi, crispy-skinned salmon fillets sitting on a bed of fluffy rice. The chefs had lathered the teriyaki sauce through the rice already and it wasn’t too sweet, just to my pleasing. After I finished my meal, I was satisfyingly full but still feeling light. This is just one reason I love Japanese cuisine and why its unique amongst other Asian cuisines, which can often be rich or heavy.
A note on tea
I unfortunately didn’t sample any sake. But their offering is clearly a speciality, with nine types available from different prefectures throughout Japan. However, I did sample a loose-leaf Japanese tea to round the meal and would recommend you do the same. I ordered a nutty-flavoured and fragrant green tea called genmai cha, uniquely blended with roasted rice.
If Japanese tea is of interest to you, then check out macha-macha on Hasenheide near Hermannplatz. A small and cosy cafe, they specialise in Japanese teas, traditional brewing methods and tasty sweet treats.
Cocoro, Mehringdamm 64, 10961 Berlin; Open: Monday to Sunday from 12 – 10pm
macha-macha, Hasenheide 16, 10967 Berlin; Open: Wednesday to Sunday from 12 – 7pm