Berlin: Not-Quite Great Burgers at The Bird
Am Falkplatz 5, Prenzlauerber, Berlin (map); +49 030 5105 3283, thebirdinberlin.com
Cooking Method: Griddled or grilled
Short Order: Excellent quality meat makes for a great burger, but other ingredients leave something to be desired.
Price: Da Birdhouse, €11.50; Big Crack, €11.50
Notes: Make a reservation if you want to avoid waiting 30+ minutes.
The Bird resides in the now-posh former eastern district of Prenzlauerberg. Now, bare meters away from where GDR soldiers once surveyed the Cold War border between East and West, double-wide strollers shuttle loads of charmingly multilingual toddlers between children's yoga to hula-hooping class. It is here that the purveyor of what is perhaps Berlin's best loved hamburger has made its nest.
The Bird is a classically decorated American-style burger joint and steakhouse. Opened in 2006 by two guys from New York, it brings American attitude at the same time as it brings American food: The menu is filled with sassy quips about Germans' propensity to eat hamburgers with a knife and fork or to order steaks well-done. The burgers have gruff names like The Dumb Texan (with a fried egg) or the Fat Stingy Gonzalez (sour cream, guac, and hot sauce). But don't let the tough guy facade scare you—the lovely servers are perfectly willing to cope with your annoying, nitpicky food-journalist questions about beef sources and cooking temperatures, even when the restaurant is completely full, which is almost always. You'll need a reservation.
Certainly, The Bird's popularity is understandable. The 250+ gram (nine or ten ounce) burgers are cooked to order from meat that is ground fresh every few hours from premium, domestically sourced beefsteaks (The Bird is also known for its steaks, which are made with dry-aged beef imported from America). And the fresh grind makes a huge difference—the burgers are grilled or griddled, and cooked medium rare they're still dripping with juice and deep umami flavor. They crumble, drip, and completely fall apart into a juicy, beefy mess that you want to lick off your fingers. As the menu says, The Bird doesn't provide big rolls of paper towel for nothing.
The house burger, Da Birdhouse, is two patties griddled with American cheese, bacon, and fried onions. The meat was, as expected, excellent. Juicy, crumbly, and deeply flavorful—so flavorful that the bacon was completely overshadowed and gave no discernible bacony flavor to the burger. Indeed, I completely forgot about it until I was halfway through the burger, and after picking my way through the grilled onions, found a few thin slices completely drenched in burger juice.
The next one we got was the Big Crack. On the menu it claims to be "just like that burger in that other place, except there's meat in it." This is The Bird's version of the Big Mac. It's drenched in Thousand Island-like sauce, with the requisite American cheese and third bun between the two griddled patties. With large patties like this, it makes for a rather unstable burger even more likely to fall apart, but that's part of the fun, right? Once again, the meat so delicious that it kind of makes the rest of the ingredients feel superfluous.
All burgers are served with tomatoes, red onion, a slice of romaine lettuce, and a pickle on the side, as well as fries. The vegetables were a little disappointing, but it's just now becoming spring, and that can be forgiven. The fries are fresh-cut but only fried once, and while flavorful, are somewhat limp. A wide range of American and Latin-American hot sauces are available, which was a nice touch, but the ketchup is not Heinz; instead, it's a very sweet German-style ketchup, which was slightly disappointing.
Now for the real difficult part: the buns. Seriously guys, English muffins simply aren't hamburger buns, and in a country that counts bread as perhaps its most significant contribution to world cuisine, this an is especially problematic sticking point. The muffins' dense but absorbent structure is distractingly chewy at the same time as being structurally unsound. And really, just look—it doesn't even cover the whole burger. It's like when a stripper is dressed as a fireman, and you think to yourself, "A real firemen would be wearing a bigger pair of pants than that; so much for that fantasy."
Awkwardly revealing analogies aside, it's important to note that The Bird makes a very good hamburger. In fact, it's the sheer potential here that makes the small problems here that much more frustrating: Why go through such a great effort to limit yourself on the home stretch? There's a fine line between a good burger and a great burger, and The Bird treads it so closely, you wonder what's stopping them.
About the author: Conor O'Rourke is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. He can usually be found losing at pub quiz or at home trying to cook the perfect fish curry.