Don’t get me wrong, McDonald’s has its place. In fact, the McDouble on the dollar menu may be the best value calorie for calorie in American quick food gastronomy. Certainly it’s among the densest offerings I have found, but it’s generic food and has no soul.
I’m a fan of local food. Low brow ethnic proletarian fare. Peasant food. Cabbages, root vegetables, smoked meats and sausage. Pizza, pasta, hot dogs and burgers. Made by hand in small batches. Honest food for honest folk. Papa John should be shot. In the south, it’s barbecue, barbecue and deep fried whatever.
I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn the other day waiting for a contractor. When he texted me to say he was an hour late, I decided it was a good time for lunch and went off to find something different. On the corner of Third and Berry, a few blocks up off the East River behind the old Domino Sugar refinery I stumble upon the Radegast Hall and Biergarden.
Two long low brick buildings half a block deep started life a hundred fifty years ago as factories or carriage repair shops or stables. They have identical gabled roofs and lay alongside each other like a pair of Siamese twins joined from the head to ankles. Red clay brick peers through the chipped and faded paint across the front of the buildings. A hand-lettered A frame sign on the sidewalk says “Open for Lunch.”
As you travel from western Europe across Germany and into the old Austro-Hungarian empire, an air of mystery and superstition gathers itself up and hangs over your consciousness. Cities, villages and countryside all feel like they have a clearer recollection of the earliest days when man first began building with stone. It’s as if humankind’s genetic memory-conduit to the middle ages has less interference when you move further east.
You know what I mean. It’s the same only different. There’s a darker feel to the landscape. The trees seem taller and the cliffs sharper. People are shorter and thicker with rounder faces. Cities once under control of Soviet dictators are a little bit sootier, the streetcars are older and the alphabet is different enough to throw you slightly off kilter.
That’s how I feel as I walk up the ramp into the barroom. That’s right, no steps, just a short steep ramp up off the sidewalk. As if the owners don’t want to discourage hard drinking customers by making them walk up and down steps.
It’s a dark wooden room with blackened raftered ceiling lit by Victorian-looking chandeliers and some natural light that leaks in the windows from next door. Age hangs thick on the place. Age that it wears proudly. This is no musty, dusty cobwebby place. It’s just dark, chunky and silent. Stern, beribboned Hapsburg generals in gaudy uniforms and walrus mustaches watch over the room from the safety of their picture frame.
The bar is kidney-shaped and broad enough to dance on. The lunchtime crowd is just me and the bartender. I pull up a barstool and settle in. It has thick legs and a strong back like the factory stiffs and longshoremen it was designed for. The bartender, younger than you’d expect in a place like this, wears a tuxedo shirt with bow tie and has a vague accent.
I order a coke and ask for a lunch menu which I get right away. The menu is a list of sausages. Just sausages. Bratwurst, Kielbasa, Chicken sausage with somethingorother, Knockwurst and other names I don’t recognize and can’t remember. Across the top it says, “Order at the Grill.” At the bottom, “All sausages include sauerkraut and French fries.”
Like an idiot, I ask, “Can you get this for me or do I have to order at the grill?”
“You have to order at the grill”
I look around, it’s dark, but not that dark. Don’t notice a grill anywhere. “Never been here before. Where’s the grill?”
He points at a shining doorway to the other building. Friendlier. “Through there to the left. You’ll see it.”
Through the doorway it’s a different world. The roof/ceiling is about half skylights so the brick walls are bright as the sunny outdoors. Two rows of massive rough-hewn picnic tables run straight as railroad tracks from one end of the building to the other on a grey slate floor.
The end wall is ancient discolored brick and has a giant Bohemian looking mural painted above an archway on its left half. There’s one guy sitting at a picnic table at the far end of the room in front of the mural. He has long hair and a long beard. He’s eating something with plastic utensils out of a red and white gingham printed cardboard tray. The grill is opposite him. It’s a big grill. Set back behind a pass-through in the brick wall, the cook has to stand in the middle so he can reach both ends.
As I approach, I see the grill’s between me and the cook and there’s about a dozen sausages browning and sizzling on it. I’m looking at the sausages and the cook’s looking at me. I have no idea what I’m seeing. I recognize Kielbasa, but that’s about it. These are not Food Lion sausages. They’re fat and heavy oozing grease and goodness through cracked browned casings. I break the ice. Pointing at a promising one I ask, “What’s that?”
“That a bratwurst?” I ask pointing at another.
“No. that’s Easter sausage, that one’s a brat.”
“How ‘bout that?” I ask, gesturing at a lighter colored one.
I give up. Shrugging, “What’s your favorite?”
“Easter.” He’s grinning now. Clearly enjoying this.
“Ok, I’ll take your word for it. Easter it is.”
He shovels a heaping mass of sauerkraut from a metal pot the size of a water bucket into a skillet and tosses that on the grill. It’s got a yellowish/orange tinge unlike any sauerkraut I’ve ever seen before.
“Guess this is your first time here. Should come back at night.” He’s dropping a basket of fries into the fryer. “More people. Different menu. They have a dish called Goulash you really should try.” Odd to hear a cook in a place like this talking about Goulash like it’s something novel and glamorous.
“I’d like to but I’m just passing through. Gettin' some lunch, then I’m gone.”
“Too bad, they have live music here alla time. Tuesday through Sunday. Jazz, mostly. Old time jazz. New Orleans and like that.”
Looking past him I can see a whole other room back beyond the cooking area. Fully stocked bars and tables in the same dark wood. The place is far bigger than you’d think from the street.
“I pay you or at the bar?”
“Me. It’s nine bucks.”
I slip him a ten and a single. He grabs two of those red and white gingham printed cardboard trays and doubles them up so they won’t leak. The sauerkraut goes on one side and the fries on the other. The sausage lands on top. He hands it to me. I hesitate when I see there’s no roll. Cook points to one side and says, “Utensils, ketchup and mustard. Enjoy.”
There’s about four different kinds of mustard in metal bowls. I take a spoonful of the reddish colored one and slather it along the sausage. Probably has some red horseradish in it I figure. Grab plastic utensils and head back to the barroom with the hot redolent cardboard going moist in my hand.
Back at my seat I drop that exquisite steaming aromatic mass onto the bar. I live for these moments. The dark coziness of the room and the anticipation of that sausage with exotic kraut makes me all warm and contented. I just sit here for a moment holding my plastic knife and fork, soaking it all in and wishing for some music.
The barkeep materializes and interrupts my reverie. “You wanna use real utensils?” He asks kind of sheepishly as he proffers the metal ones. They’re wrapped in a cloth napkin and he’s shoving them at me.
“Uh, yeah. Ok.” I reach for them without thinking and never really break my focus off the food. I snatch a fry. It’s hot and crunches when I bite into it. It’s a pretty thick fry. Not a steak fry, but bigger than a McDonald's one. About as fat as a Sharpie. Probably went frozen into the oil because it’s crispy on the outside and still soft inside. Good and salty. Perfect.
I’m saving the sausage. I go for the kraut next. It looks soooo weird. Clearly has turmeric in it. Probably paprika, too. What am I saying? Of course it’s paprika. Where the hell am I? Good hot Hungarian paprika. I had paprika like this in Budapest back in ’05. Even brought some home. Unmistakable. Garlic, too. The kraut’s hot, sweet, spicy and vinegary all at the same time. I’m in heaven.
Finally I drive my fork into the sausage and it spits oily sausage juice all over my French fries. I’m smiling. This is freakin’ awesome. And I found it by accident! I’m cutting the meat into little pieces and forking their wonferfulness into my mouth one at a time so it lasts longer. More than halfway through the fries, they’re still crunchy except for the wet spots where the sausage or kraut leaked onto them. And that’s ok because it just adds flavor.
Soon. Far too soon, I have to stop. Because I just can’t eat any more. It’s only some fries that are left. I figured out long ago that you finish the meat first, the veggies second and the potatoes last because they’re the cheapest and if you’re paying for that meat you sure as hell better eat it all and who cares about a bunch of damn potatoes anyway (even if they’re perfectly crunchy salty and fat as a Sharpie)?
I take a last slurp off the Coke and look at the check. A dollar fifty for the soft drink. I leave some cash on the bar, wave at the bartender and head for the door. I’m coming back here some day when it’s ok to have a few beers. Yeah. McDonalds has its place, but it’s not here and it’s not now.