The aroma of slowly cooked pork drifts out of the tiny kitchen behind the bar in North Portland’s Wursthaus. Chef David Gluth stands under a sign carrying the name of his popular food carts and booths: Urban German.
“I’m making schweinebraten, which is a pork roast, slow roasted, which we serve here with mashed potatoes and red cabbage.” For today’s meal, Gluth is replacing the potatoes with spatzle.
Gluth and this kitchen are here because of Occidental Brewing Co. At a time when Portland was gulping down hop-heavy IPAs, Ben Engler and his uncle Dan went softer. German.
“Dan’s the brewmaster and these are the beers he enjoys, that we both really enjoy brewing and drinking. When we put together our lineup there were some beers he had been brewing for a long time and we knew we would include. Two of those being kolsch and hefeweizen.” Also on the list are pilsner, altbier and seasonals. Having a wide selection is very un-German. For instance, you might like the kolsch.
“Kolsch is light, crisp, easy drinking, low ABV. Ours comes in at 4.5 percent. It should be a beer that’s very refreshing and you can have a few and still feel good about yourself.”
But that may only be true if you are in kolsch’s hometown of Koln. “If you were in Dusseldorf,” Ben says, “they would probably tell you to leave because they mainly drink altbier.”
Germans are known to be protective of beer. Occidental tries to stay as close to the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot purity law as possible when making year-round offerings and seasonals like Maibock, Festbier and Dunkelweizen. The rule dictates only malt, water and hops be used in brewing. But that was written before yeast was discovered, which not only makes alcohol but adds carbonation when the beer is bottle conditioned. Ben Engler doesn’t bottle condition. He adds carbon dioxide to carbonate the beer, which is slightly off German law.
And about those German purity laws … consider the Thuringian Rostbratwurst. This 586-year-old tongue twister is the bratwurst purity law.
“First of all, sausage making is an art for us,” Gluth explains. What he found in Portland when he landed here nine years ago is that “the kind of sausages are really one style: smoked. You don’t see many white sausages. German sausages have different spices. We use the same meat. There are always some rules you cannot break, how much fat you put in. But we have more varieties of sausage.”
So Gluth took a hint from what his parents were doing back home — selling wursts at farmers markets — and opened Urban German.
“The urban comes because I’m from Berlin. People try to nail you down to the Bavarian cliche. I come from the big city where I definitely have authentic sausages, but I am open for crossovers. I want to make sure this is not a Bavarian place because I am not from Bavaria. We serve lots of food they have in the south of Germany too.”
Tired of making food at festivals and farmers markets, he was ready to come indoors. As fate would have it, Ben Engler was being encouraged to add food to his taproom. Coming from a family of caterers, though, he was leery. The answer to his dilemma was Gluth. The two had worked together before and decided doing business together could work.
Nestled on the second floor of a building across the courtyard from the Occidental brewery, the Wursthaus enjoys a western exposure that floods the room with light softly reflected by creamy yellow walls. Those walls are dotted with posters brought back from Germany by Gluth and Dan Engler. A high shelf over a window is lined with steins. The handmade bar is topped by two white, curvaceous tap towers. Or you can step out onto the deck, sit in the sun and have an even better view of the St. Johns Bridge.
In either case, the atmosphere matches the comfort food you will want to dig into. Waiting for my meal, Ben Engler admits his favorites. “I frequently eat the Swiss fondue with pretzel and wurst. It makes a good lunch for me. It’s quick and cheap.”
It’s currently transition time. Lighter summer meals are gradually making way for heavier autumn and winter fare. At Oktoberfests, “people identify the sausage and potato salad, that’s the way it is.”
But, Gluth says as things cool off, “we offer way more stews — Germans love stew — like goulash, like bean stews with smoked beans and Canadian bacon.”
The plate in front of me is about to prove Ben Engler and Gluth’s point. It looks robust and heavy. And the flavors are spectacular. The pork is succulent and pull-apart tender. The spatzle, a soft egg noodle, is coated with a creamy cheese sauce accented with roasted onions. Also, as promised, the beer complements the food; the crispness being a counterpoint to the creamy cheese, the tang of the beets and even the juicy pork.
The Wursthaus proves there is more to German food than pretzels, sausage and potato salad. And that the best of it can be found in North Portland — not too far to drive for an Oktoberfest party. •