A couple of days ago my good friend Michael Stewart and I took a photographic safari through the Potomac valley above Washington, DC. These spur-of-the-moment road trips frequently take us to various diners and greasy spoons where we like to sample the simple but tasty fare offered in equally simple surroundings. This trip was no different and we enjoyed a late breakfast at a small, rather nondescript eatery in Cumberland, Maryland before wandering the quiet streets and nearby train yard. It was a breakfast to die for, and, considering the calories, one that could be equally lethal. Afterwards we continued to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and through the farms and vineyards of northern Loudoun County in Virginia. Later in the afternoon we found ourselves in Leesburg, Virginia and looking for another place to rest and enjoy a small repast and a cold beer. Michael, who is well-versed in the location and offerings of these local joints, suggested a stop at the Döner Bistro on the edge of downtown Leesburg. It sounded good to me.
The place was opened in 2008 as the successor to the popular Mighty Midget Kitchen, a small burger and barbeque joint opened at a nearby intersection back in 1946. Fashioned out of scrap metal taken from a surplus World War II B-17 bomber, the original “kitchen” was only large enough to accommodate one or two people taking and preparing take-out orders while the actual cooking was done on a smoker grill out back. The Mighty Midget moved to its present location in 1987 but eventually closed a few years later. It was reopened in 1996 and continued to operate until 2007 when it closed again. In the meantime, a couple of local entrepreneurs originally from Germany mourned the fact that there was no place to find Turkish-style doner kebab in Leesburg and environs. They launched Hamburg Döner (the adding of an umlaut was a nice Germanic touch) in 2006, selling them out of a converted van in a city parking lot.. The next year they took over the defunct Mighty Midget Kitchen and began preparing meals in the original scrap metal structure and serving them in the adjacent outdoor beer garden or inside at the bar and small dining room. In 2009 the establishment was renamed Döner Bistro.
In addition to its wide selection of traditional German fast food dishes such as Bratwurst, Schnitzel and Currywurst, Döner Bistro’s unique offering is the Döner Kebab, or simply a Döner. Although originally a popular Turkish street food consisting of marinated meat (usually lamb or chicken) grilled on a vertical spit and then sliced and served over rice, the German version (with umlaut), which was created by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin in the early 1970s and which is served at the Döner Bistro, is quite different when you break it down. The meat is tangy with Turkish spices and is served with salad and a German-style herb and garlic sauce and wrapped in a piece of warm flatbread. It resembles the Greek gyro, or souvlakia, which are both served with pita bread, but the Döner is an altogether different eating experience.
Snow was piled up around the entrance when we arrived and it was still a bit chilly to eat outside in the beer garden so we chose to sit in the tiny bar where we ordered our meal and enjoyed one of the many German beers available on draft and in bottles while listening to German techno-pop and watching the news about the revolution in Cairo. I chose one of my favorite beers, a Warsteiner Pilsner, and we chatted with a young fellow from Hamburg who was working the bar and who took our order. I told him I had never had a Döner before. I guess I had encountered and eaten them when I was traveling in Turkey and just assumed they were gyros (I was not into food back then like I am now). He told me that it is the number one fast food in Germany. Now I lived and studied in Germany in the early 1970s and I have traveled there several times since, but I had to confess that I had never heard of it. I thought I was familiar with the standard fare found in the ubiquitous Schnellimbiss [fast food joint or snack bar] throughout Germany, but I guess the Döner had not yet reached my stomping grounds in southern Germany before I left to return to the USA. Since my visit to the Döner Bistro I have spoken with friends in Germany and they have confirmed the overwhelming popularity of the Döner. Now I know. Better late than never they always say.