Berlin by the Bay

Fine German fare sandwiched between two viewings of the fine German photographs of August Sander

I just got in under the wire to see the amazing Gerhard Richter show at SFMOMA. It was closing within days, and touring the many rooms was so overwhelming that I feared I'd given short shrift to the August Sander exhibition in the same museum, even though he's one of my favorite photographers and this show gathers together some 200 of his images -- more than I'd ever seen in one place. But, I'll come see it again, I thought, comfortably, since it was -- what? -- still near the beginning of January, and the exhibit had weeks to run.

Within days I got a third hit of German culture when I saw Berlin Symphony, the 2002 homage to the brilliant 1927 documentary Berlin Symphony of a City, in the Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro. By this time my thoughts had also lightly turned to those of German food. (Despite the invariable uneducated, woe-inducing, knee-jerk response of some of my acquaintances when I speak of my affection for German cooking -- "Oh, I hate German food! It's so heavy!" -- I find certain emblematic dishes to be lightness personified. A properly fried schnitzel can be almost evanescent as it crunches delicately between your teeth.)

But time went by, and I neither returned to SFMOMA nor sat down to bratwurst and beer or schnitzel and sekt. Then I read a characteristically thoughtful piece on Sander in the Feb. 10 New Yorker by Anthony Lane, who in his exploration of Sander's lifelong portrait studies of German archetypes titled "People of the 20th Century" cites Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, and Alfred Döblin. I thought of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-hour movie of Döblin's novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which I had so dutifully and pleasurably attended, week after week, as it unspooled serial-fashion at the Vista Theater in Hollywood, and how often we had extended the experience by enjoying a plate of sausages or pork shank at the old Red Lion Tavern nearby. (I turned a couple of pages in the magazine, and there was David Denby on a new touring Fassbinder retrospective, almost eerily.) I knew I had to get back to see the Sander show again, and to eat some German food, soon.

You Will Eat, and You Will Like It: Walzwerk's 
eccentric thrift-shop décor and photos of Marx, 
Engels, and Lenin contribute to the East German 
Anthony Pidgeon
You Will Eat, and You Will Like It: Walzwerk's eccentric thrift-shop décor and photos of Marx, Engels, and Lenin contribute to the East German illusion.

Location Info



2424 Lincoln
Alameda, CA 94501

Category: Restaurant > German

Region: Alameda


Sausage and cheese plate $12.50
Grilled smoked pork chop $13.50

Top Dog
German frankfurter $2.50
Bratwurst $2.50

Roast half duck $18.95
German meatloaf $12.95

Potato pancakes $6
Schnitzel $12

Speisekammer, 2424 Lincoln (at Park), Alameda, (510) 522-1300. Open for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m.; for Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: moderate.

Top Dog, 2503 Hearst (at Euclid), Berkeley, (510) 843-1241. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Noise level: moderate.

Schroeder's, 240 Front (at California), 421-4778. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and on Saturday for dinner only from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 12, 41. Noise level: moderate.

Walzwerk, 381 South Van Ness (at 15th Street), 551-7181. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations accepted for parties of four or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Muni: 12, 22, 33, BART. Noise level: moderate.

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Janice and Adam had just heard of a German place in Alameda (which we fondly refer to as the Land That Time Forgot), so I came by to pick them and their son Chester up for dinner that very night. (Before we left, Chester and I watched an episode of The Simpsons in which Mr. Burns entertained a couple of German industrialists at a rather gemütlichkeit place called the Hungry Hun.) I liked the broad pink façade of Speisekammer, set back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence, the long bar with its many beer spigots, the seemingly endless array of rooms filled with plain wooden tables surrounded by happy eaters. (Speisekammer's owners and chef are veterans of Suppenküche, a longtime favorite of mine.)

We ordered a whole lot of food (fortunately, 10-year-old Chester has the appetite of, well, a growing boy): Reibekuchen mit hausegemachtern Apfelmus (potato pancakes with homemade apple sauce); Hering nach Hausfrauenart mit Schmand, Zweibeln, Gurken (pickled herring with sour cream, onion, and pickles); and the intriguing Vesperplatte mit Schinken, Blutwurst, Salami und Käse (an appetizer plate with ham, blood sausage, salami, and cheese) to start, followed by Wiener Schnitzel vom Kalbsfleisch mit Bratkartoffeln (veal wiener schnitzel with roasted potatoes), Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsobe mit Spätzle (sautéed pork loin in mushroom sauce with little dumplings), Kassler vom Grill mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffelbrei (grilled smoked pork chop with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes), and Gegrillte Nürnberger Bratwurst mit S 'n' K (grilled pork sausage with the same accompaniments as the pork chop). And glasses of dark beer, Pilsner, and Riesling.

I was impressed that our server could remember all this without writing it down ("Oh," he scoffed, "only for parties of 15, maybe"); somehow I was not totally surprised when an unordered bowl of bread dumplings drenched with mushroom sauce hit the table instead of the potato pancakes we were expecting. He left us the dumplings as a gift. The mixed appetizer plate was a beautifully arrayed assortment of thick-cut ham, chunks of Thuringer sausage, headcheese, blood sausage, two kinds of cheese, and a couple of rollmops (herring rolled around pickles), with the welcome additions of halved hard-boiled egg, cornichons, and radishes. The two German mustards on the table -- one hot, one grainy -- got a workout. The big fat herrings were crisp, sea-salty, and sided by an irresistible salad of chopped apples and sliced onions dressed with sour cream, and perfectly boiled potatoes sprinkled with fresh chopped parsley. The just-made potato pancakes were the lacy, crunchy, Brillo pad-stringy sort; we made quick work of them. We were getting enough to eat.

So we didn't finish any of our main courses, but it wasn't for want of trying. The schnitzel was not the thin-pounded crisp collop of my dreams, but two crusty, thick-cut chunks, still very satisfying indeed and accompanied by some extraordinarily good little square-cut roasted potatoes. My knife slipped right through the silky pink flesh of the hefty smoked pork chop. I was mildly disappointed by the salty yellow sauce on the Jägerschnitzel, the same sauce that had more happily moistened the bread dumplings.

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