Wurst Case Scenario
Modern Germany has given the world some pretty great things: fahrvergnügen, silly hats for days, Dirk Nowitzki’s fadeaway. I could go on – Werner Herzog anyone? But the most impressive thing Germany has to offer is a near-limitless range of delicious things to eat and drink. Lucky for us, a quick turn around San Francisco reveals numerous options to sample German cuisine and culture. You’re not going to lose any weight dining Deutsch, but you will gain the opportunity to consume huge amounts of dark beer and smoked meats. Sounds like a fair trade to me – although my body type is already closer to Augustus Gloop than Charlie Bucket. So I set out to explore four different German outposts in San Francisco, seeking a unique offering at each.
My first stop was Lehr's German Specialties, a Noe Valley stalwart since it opened about 40 years ago. Then the neighborhood was largely German, but now Lehr's feels like a relic from another time. A delicious time! The small store is stuffed with a dizzying range of products. This is the sort of place that has an entire fridge of cryptically delicious meat products with a proudly emblazoned sign that reads: “We have pinkelwurst!” Well, that answers my first question. I even snagged some German-style curry ketchup, a prized delicacy among the condiment-obsessed.
Holding down the counter was Bridgette, who has been working at Lehr's since it opened. According to Bridgette, the majority of the store’s customers are German ex-pats who make pilgrimages to Lehr's from far-flung locales like San Jose and Lake Tahoe. She identified a coveted poppy-seed cake as the most unique item offered. It’s often sold out hours after it arrives, each Saturday, from a German bakery in Vacaville. Since I visited on a Friday, there was none to be had. I will be back, however, and I’m not afraid to throw a few elbows in the pursuit of delicious cake.
I asked Bridgette to pick her favorite item in the store and she giggled, indicating her healthy figure, “Everything! Why, don’t I look it?” Never! Bridgette helped me parse Lehr's exhaustive candy aisle, which is mostly devoted to chocolate. Another aisle focuses entirely on the gummi arts. And so you see why Lehr's has prospered for so long. I eventually picked out a pack of Kinder Happy Hippos, which are a sort of wafer hippopotamus filled with vanilla and chocolate crème. They were easily the best confectionary members of phylum artiodactyla I have had in quite some time.
I then ventured over to the Western Addition to sample the eclectic brews on offer at Bistro Gambrinus. While technically a purveyor of modern European rather than strictly German cuisine, Bistro Gambrinus deserves to be included in any Teutonic tour of San Francisco. Upon entering you are greeted by a dizzying array of taps, which almost seem to have spread across the bar organically, like wildflowers. Wildflowers that dispense beer! A bar in the finest German tradition, Bistro Gambrinus offers beer by the liter – and at great prices. I soon had a massive stein of Franziskaner Dunkel, a beautiful dark wheat beer from Munich.
Dispensing the suds was Alex, a transplant from Belarus. He was a fount of entertaining conversation as well as beer. I was in the mood for a late lunch and Alex suggested the bigos, a meaty hunter’s stew considered the national dish of Poland. While not light, it was delicious, offering several species of protein and an earthy, herbaceous flavor. And it went perfectly with my beer. Alex hopped across the bar and cracked a skylight above me. Truly, this was an ideal spot for midday drinking.
Bistro Gambrinus’ unique offering is something best enjoyed with a group. Every night, this small establishment throws down the twin gauntlets that are its Seafood Extravaganza and Mixed Grill Plate. Both come in versions intended for five or 10, although judging from the quantity of food, those numbers could refer to non-confectionary hippos rather than people. The Extravaganza more than lives up to its name, featuring crab legs, shrimp, trout, New Zealand mussels, prawns, and crawfish. The Grill is just as exhaustive, offering lamb chops, baby back ribs, chicken kebab, Liulia kebab (an Azerbaijani lamb dish), and smoked sausage. This is party food done right, or else some sort of meat-based wager of which I want no part.
More was just what I found at Schroeder's, the largest and oldest German restaurant on the West Coast. Founded in 1893 by Prussian emigrant Henry Schroeder on Market between First and Second, the establishment has had several homes before landing at its current location back in 1959. Lest you doubt Schroeder’s authenticity, the place was once purchased with gold pieces. It also features a series of life-sized murals painted by Herman Richter in 1932. Richter’s artworks were such an intrinsic part of Schroeder's ambiance that they were transported from the old site to the restaurant’s current location.
At lunch, Schroeder's is snoozy, welcoming, and filled with regulars enjoying a beer and a hearty meal before an afternoon of pretending not to nap. I had a Bavarian-sized (38 oz.) mug of Paulaner and an amazing plate of Wiener schnitzel with perfectly roasted potatoes and buttery red cabbage. But then there’s the evening, when the whole hall is opened and the long tables fill with people ready to see what drinking a full boot (aka 80 oz.) of beer will do to them. The menu expands as well to include platters of sausages, a selection of steaks, and even venison. Schroeder’s also offers live music. When I visited, there were banners promoting an upcoming performance by none other than Big Lou's Polka Casserole Band. Oh Big Lou, you had me at “Casserole.”
After eating I had a chance to talk with the current owner and head chef of Schroeder's, Stefan Filipclk. While originally from the Czech Republic, Stefan started at Schroeder’s as a chef in 1986. Stefan and his wife Jana took over the place in 1996, keeping an eye on tradition while expanding the menu to offer more fish and – gasp! – even vegetarian fare. With little hesitation, Stefan identified his schweinshaxe, or ham hock, as Schroeder's unique fare. “Nobody does it like us,” he said with a smile. Stefan also mentioned that if you call ahead, you can special order pumpernickel bread, which comes directly from Germany. So now you know what to get me for my birthday.
Next it was on to Leopold's, an Alpine gasthaus incongruously nestled in Russian Hill. While the hospitality at Leopold’s is traditional in the best way, the menu aspires toward a more contemporary interpretation of German cuisine. The décor reflects this dichotomy, mixing dark wood and mounted animal heads with funky yellow walls and an open, airy setting.
Feeling my oats as a pseudo-Deutschlander, I ordered a half liter of Köstritzer Schwarzbier, a black lager with the taste of a porter but not the heaviness one expects. Also on the menu are liter glasses, two-liter boots, and steins in three and – come on! – five-liter sizes. Basically, you can really drink here. And you can really eat too. I started with the crisp flatbread melted with Gruyère, caramelized onions, and just enough arugula to be convinced it might be healthy. I also sampled the Crispy Pig Trotters, a rich gooey disk of fried porcine delight.
It was my main course that brought the truly unique dish: pan-fried trout wrapped in pancetta. Simultaneously cultured and rustic, this trout offered a wealth of flavor and pitch-perfect technique. The fish was perfectly cooked and infused with magic bacon essence. It was special. As I enjoyed some decadent apfelstrudel (a layered fruit pastry) for dessert, I showed my first bit of restraint by turning down a glass of Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslese (a sweet dessert wine). After all, the next day would be Saturday and I had to get to Lehr’s early if I wanted some of that poppy-seed cake.
Head over to Noe Valley to visit Lehr's German Specialties, but be ready to buy a ton of candy. Bistro Gambrinus is right off of Masonic in the Western Addition. Make sure to call ahead if you’re coming with a big group. You won’t see Schroeder's from out on Market Street, but it’s there, I promise. Check its website for info about upcoming musical performances, some of which are sure to involve casserole. Leopold's is right in the heart of Russian Hill. You’ll know you’re in the right place because co-owner-master-of-the-house-Gérard Depardieu-doppelgänger Klaus will be right out front with a smile. Reservations aren’t accepted, though, so show up early.