Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap: What to expect when you’re expecting (to wait!).
As you ascend the stairs from the Mehringdamm stop on the U-Bahn into Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg district, you immediately see a small food booth on the sidewalk. It’s an imbiss — just one of thousands of small street food shops in Berlin. But this one has an unbelievably long line of customers waiting to order. It stretches the better part of a block.
You think, “They must be giving away free food — or perhaps a B-list celebrity is making sandwiches and autographing them.” But in reality, it’s just an average day here. It’s Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap, and they make döner kebap.
What is döner kebap?
Döner kebap, or often just “döner,” is a Turkish analog to Arab shawarma and Greek gyros. You’ll find it all over central Europe. Seasoned meat — in Mustafa’s case, chicken — is stacked on a rotisserie next to a cooking element. If you’ve seen gyros cooking, you get the concept. As the outer layer fully cooks, it’s shaved from the rotisserie and ultimately finds its way into a sandwich where it’s joined by vegetables and sauces in a kind of a Turkish mouth party.
Now, when you put all that stuff in a thin, lightly grilled flatbread that seems a bit like a pita’s fat and lazy cousin (thicker and softer), it’s called döner. A döner made on this type of bread is purported to be a Berlin original (You can learn more about the contentious history of döner innovation in Deniz Arslan’s awesome post, “Debunking the Döner Myth”). Since its inception, it has spread to other parts of Europe. I’ve found it in Amsterdam, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Krakow. But if you roll the same stuff into a tortilla wrap-like tube like a burrito, it’s called dürüm. Most döner shops offer both.
And these shops are all over Berlin, but none have a line like this.
Cate eats a Hähnchen Döner mit Gemüse (Chicken Döner with Vegetables) Mustafa’s Gemüsa Kebap in Berlin, Germany
What’s so special about Mustafa’s Gemüsa Kebap?
Well, it’s not the ambiance, nor is it the service — nothing special about either. So let’s start with the obvious: the food. At the risk of being accused of typical food-blogger hyperbole, the food from Mustafa’s Gemüsa Kebap is remarkably complex and nuanced — stop the eye-roll. I’ll explain.
Blanket statement: Mustafa’s places emphasis on fresh, quality ingredients. Put that in the back of your mind while I paint a picture. Let’s start at the beginning of the process.
TV Commercial for Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap
As you face the service counter, you’ll see a rotisserie of chicken to the left gently roasting as it slowly spins. Upon further inspection, you’ll notice there are layers of a non-chicken-colored substance: it’s vegetables! You’ll also see something red piled on top of all that chicken: More vegetables!
As the roasted chicken and vegetables are shaved from the spit, they fall onto a hot grill below. A handful of herbs are recklessly tossed on top of the sizzling pile before being doused in a mysterious dark-colored liquid.
You’ll order a döner or dürüm as described above. The döner bread is toasted to a delicate crispness on the outside, but soft and moist on the inside. The dürüm is probably fine too.
Let’s assume you asked for “Alles, bitte.” (“Everything, please.”). First, they will spread three sauces on your döner or dürüm: a white “kräuter” (herb) sauce, a beige “knoblauch” (garlic) sauce, and red “scharf” (spicy) sauce.
Then they stuff it part way with roasted-then-grilled chicken and peppers, grilled eggplant, zucchini, and carrot. Then it’s stuffed further with fresh cucumber, tomato, onion and parsley. Somewhere along the way, a salad of lettuce and cabbage is also shoehorned into your sandwich along with disk-shaped fried potatoes.
As we round the home stretch, a pile of crumbly, feta-like cheese (it may just be feta) with dill is stacked on top. In a final, sublime, culinary flourish, it’s quickly drizzled with a fresh squeeze of lemon juice.
To top it all off, it’s incredibly cheap (for some reason). Prices for these amazing sandwiches range from €2.80 (about $3.10) to €4.30 (about $4.75). See the menu at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap
One thing to note: Döner aficionados may point out that Mustafa’s döner, while a classic in its own right, isn’t a classic döner because of the inclusion of grilled vegetables and potatoes. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s still delicious.
So that sounded good, but is it really that good?
When someone says, “that place is overrated,” it was probably a food blog that “overrated” it. Suspicion is understandable.
Don’t take my word for it. Watch German Food Reviews’ video review of a döner kebap from Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap. Warning: GFR’s videos are mysteriously addictive and generally quite funny (See German Food Reviews’ YouTube channel).
Review of Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap’s Hähnchen Döner mit Gemüse (Chicken Döner with Vegetables) by German Food Reviews (YouTube Channel)
So what about Mustafa’s famous — or infamous — line?
First, it’s real — and it’s not just sometimes, it’s pretty much all of the time. The standard seems to be around 40 to 50 minutes — which sounds absurd for a €3.20 sandwich. Reports of wait-times range from as short as 10 or 15 minutes to over 3 hours.
You’d expect a two- or three-hour wait couldn’t happen in a line of hungry people getting hungrier. A natural, self-correcting process of attrition would limit the line to a length just past the threshold of what the average person considers to be reasonable. And a two- or three-hour wait for a €3 or €4 sandwich doesn’t seem to fit.
Customers waiting in line at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district.
The big question: Is it worth the wait?
It’s not helpful for me to say, “It’s up to you.” if you haven’t even been there yet — although it’s the truth. How are you to know? So, I’ll say that the best answer is “Yes!” with a “but…”
Let’s start with the so-obvious-as-to-not-be-worth-mentioning: At this point, you probably realize Mustafa’s is not the right choice to “checkout” for a “quick bite.” Waiting 40+ minutes for an experience that is over before you know it sounds like a ride at an amusement park, not a sandwich. Is it that good? Is it like a roller coaster for your mouth?
If you’ve been to Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, you probably noticed that they’ve made the act of waiting in line an experience. Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, and Seven Dwarves Mine Train all have interactive features that make waiting in line part of the experience.
Well, Mustafa’s didn’t do that, so you have to do it yourself. Here’s how.
How to make the most of your experience waiting in line.
In Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Hunger is the best pickle” meaning that hunger, like a pickle that whets your appetite, makes food taste better. And hunger from waiting in line may make a great sandwich taste even better. But Snickers’ ads point out the clear downside of being too hungry. The point is you should strike a careful balance — and preparation is everything.
Before you get in line:
- Bring a friend. You may be in line for a while. You may be unwilling to use your phone to avoid obscene overseas data charges. You’ll need someone you can talk to. Besides, food tastes better when you can tell someone how good it tastes.
- Note how long the line is. Based on this information, you will make a few important decisions. If you’d like to estimate wait time, you can approximate 90 seconds per person in line ahead of you according to John Worth Euroblog’s post, “Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap – good, but not worth the wait.” To get a preview of the Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap, see our short video.
- Note how much meat is on the rotisserie. If it looks like it may be low enough that they will need to add more meat before you place your order, expect to wait an additional 20 – 30 minutes. Really.
- Note how hungry you are. This probably won’t take much effort. If you’re very hungry and the line appears somewhat long, don’t worry. You’re actually among the lucky. Read on.
- Head to Curry 36 for currywürst (and optional beer!). In a quirk of fate, the tail end of the line at Mustafa’s points in the direction of Curry 36: one of Berlin’s most venerable currywürst chains. If you’re hungry and anticipate a wait, you’ve just won a two-fer. You can check the box on TWO famous Berlin institutions.
Follow me through the process of waiting, ordering, and eating in this YouTube video to help you decide if it’s worth the wait.
You should know that public drinking — like when you’re in line at Mustafa’s on the sidewalk — doesn’t carry the same stigma in Berlin as it does in cities across the U.S. and in some other countries. You can rest assured, you’ll get no strange looks, nor unwelcome attention from law enforcement for tipping back a beer (or two, maybe three). In fact, some of your fellow line-mates will likely be imbibing as well.
Drinking a beer from Curry 36 while waiting in line at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap in Berlin, Germany.
Another very, very, very important thing to note is that, while you can buy beer from Curry 36, you can not buy beer — or any other alcohol — at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap. If you’d like to enjoy a beer with your döner, you can stock up at Curry 36.
Alternatively, you can also head to the very nearby Vogt’s Bier-Express after you get your food from Mustafa’s. Vogt’s will not only provide access to beer, but also a seat at a table on which to enjoy your food. They’ll even supply a plate on that table on which you can place your food. If you add this to our other pro tips, you can now check three boxes in a series of masterstrokes.
In the end, the Mustafa’s experience is more than eating a sandwich — really. I don’t want you to think I’m overly romanticizing a not-so-fast food experience, but a trip to Mustafa’s is part of a trip to Berlin. And waiting in line is part of a trip to Mustafa’s. As crazy as this sounds, I would contend that you haven’t really experienced Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab unless you’ve waited just a little too long to eat.