Stephen Lowman grabs a taste of California at Neukölln’s Cabslam…
About 12 years ago Patrick Blasa came to Berlin “on a whim, like everybody else”. Intending to stay for three months, after a couple weeks he knew he wouldn’t be returning to Los Angeles. He did odd jobs and some graphic design work before landing a spot in the kitchen of Altes Europa, a cozy tavern in Mitte that offers bistro-quality fare and the type of nonchalant customer service that drives American visitors mad.
Blasa, who had a bit of kitchen experience before arriving in Germany, says he spent six years at the restaurant asking himself: “How do the Europeans do it? How do Berliners do it?” He learned to run a kitchen, change up a menu, and ditch his inborn American inclination toward “waiting from head to toe” on patrons. “The way they did it promoted a relaxed atmosphere. Over the years, I kind of got to like that,” he said.
But by 2009 he was fed up and Frühstück was to blame. The ubiquitous German breakfast buffet that at first seemed so glorious — plates of cold cuts and cheeses! Baskets of bread rolls! Bowls of yogurt and muesli and Nutella! — had become somewhat ho-hum. He missed home.
“I couldn’t stand these breakfasts. They were driving me crazy! Then I had an idea…” Now that he had learned from Germans about relaxed customer service, Balsa decided to switch roles and teach Germans a lesson in the art of the classic, all-American breakfast.
At first, Blasa pitched the idea of serving elevated greasy-spoon-style fare to Altes Europa, but was rejected. (“The boss said ‘OK’ but then the kitchen, like, rebelled…”) Through a friend, he was put in touch with the owners of the now-defunct Bar 7000 at Skalitzer Strasse 54. And it was there that, in the fall of 2010, the California Breakfast Slam was born.
Blasa and one other cook began serving up morning favourites — pancakes, French toast, eggs benedict, steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy, huevos rancheros —every Saturday and Sunday, to ever larger crowds. Forced to find a different home when 7000 closed after receiving noise complaints, the restaurant briefly relocated to the bar San Remo Upflamör in June 2011.
That was followed by a move to Lagari, a Neukölln Kneipe the now officially renamed Cabslam would stay at for more than two years. “Every couple months it would go up another level,” he says. What started as two-man operation grew to “three people, then it became four people, now it’s like six, seven, eight people just in the front to handle it.”
The venture eventually generated enough contented sighs from Berlin’s food-obsessed expat community to catch the attention of the New York Times: the newspaper of record suggesting in its travel section last year that readers line their stomach at the Cabslam before indulging in some Sunday afternoon “adult clubbing” at Berghain.
Bolstered by the popularity, and with the help of his new business partner Davey Frankel, Blasa purchased a large space formerly home to a Croatian restaurant seven streets south of Lagari in Neukölln. The Cabslam’s new, permanent home is right on the Landwehr Kanal and recalls the unfussy, post-industrial chic of so many Berlin restaurants.
Featuring finely-patterned wooden tables and friendly, chatty front-of-house staff – who hail from across Europe and beyond – the space contributes positively to the relaxed, unhurried vibe Blasa had come to admire in Berlin establishments.
“You want to be served by someone you want to wake up next to in the morning,” Blasa said of his gauge for judging whether someone is the right fit as a server. “Never someone who works evenings too, or anyone who has been through the bar wringer and doesn’t have a fresh vibe.”
The breakfasts, if anything, seem even larger, fresher any tastier than before, with overt attention to detail. But the plan in the new place is to conquer the granddaddy of State-side cuisine: burgers. In a city that has more burger joints than you shake a salty fry at, it’s a big challenge – though Blasa reckons he is more than ready to plant his flag in Berlin’s bun-and-beef patty wars.
“It’s a very crowded field but, I think, the Master Burger is not there yet,” he says. “We want to jump into that fray.”
Burgers (classic, guacamole and bacon, chili) anchor the evening menu. The guacamole and bacon variation a friend and I tried had the most crucial component right: a sturdy, nicely seasoned and perfectly cooked patty. But it was undermined by a too-dry bun whose lower half wasn’t up to the task of keeping it all together. You can be adventurous and order tempura veggies to go with it, but we went the time-honored route and got the “triple-fried” fries, which did the job but lacked some of the crispness the name suggests.
Alongside the burgers, the simple dinner menu is dominated by highbrow versions of other old-time comfort foods: fish tacos, mac and cheese, surf and turf, and chicken adobo. The kitchen hit the mark with its polenta and meatballs, another regular player on the menu. The fried polenta in place of noodles provided a rich twist which, when united with three tender meatballs drenched in marinara sauce, produced big, savoury flavors.
Nightly specials, such as the recently featured boeuf bourguignon or shrimp skewers on roasted sweet potato offer something a bit bolder. But if Cabslam is ultimately able to leave its sizeable mark on both the breakfast and burger scene, what’s next?
“I basically have a bazillion ideas about gastro,” he says. “I would like to do a kind of pan-Asian thing, but then have weird characters run the kitchen. I want to have actors who are totally the most rude people … it’s a stage, you would take it a bit as a performance, but the food would be amazing.”
The California Breakfast Slam
Open Daily: 10 AM – midnight
Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner