If you grew up going to I.H.O.P., you know the best thing about it was the syrup caddy at every table. Shadowed under the window ledge, it might have looked as though every vessel contained good old maple, but if you were like me and my brothers, you scoured every empty table in the restaurant to make sure you had one strawberry, blueberry, butter pecan, and the rest. No duplicates, Dad!
Hanging on to a sense of childlike wonder gets harder and harder for everybody, but that probably goes double for someone as relentlessly methodical as The Food Lab author and Serious Eats culinary director J. Kenji López-Alt. A debunker of treasured myths — no, New York bagels aren’t good because the water has magical properties — and dispenser of practical how-to knowledge, López-Alt has opened bier- and brat-haus Wursthall in downtown San Mateo with partners Adam Simpson and Tyson Mao.
It’s many things, among them a shot across the bow at Bill’s Hofbrau directly across South B Street, and a charming reno job on a historic building (that was originally two, if the ceiling beams are any indication). The choice of German food makes sense, both to capitalize on the seemingly endless craft-beer explosion and because it retains that primal edge, foregoing subtlety for the elementary pleasure of pickle against meat and of pretzels dipped in soft cheese, all while holding a heavy stein in your non-dominant hand.
Bringing a chemistry-set sensibility to bear is smart business, with the additional benefit of sidestepping faux-Neanderthal bravado. If the proverb says you don’t want to know how sausage is made, then López-Alt puts on a miner’s helmet, dismantles and reassembles the grinder, and records the sausage-making process in slow-motion to capture every nuance. Wursthall’s results are on the whole very strong.
Take the Classic d’Epi pretzel, an $11 pull-apart wheat-stalk bread shaped to yield maximum surface area. Get it with the obatzda ($4), a dipping sauce with two-to-one ratio of cheese to butter. Or the grilled broccolini salad, an autumnal plate sprinkled with spiced pumpkin seeds, currants, and quark — the soft cheese, not the subatomic particle. It’s not quite that molecular.
Apart from that, though, Wursthall’s menu leans heavily on starches and meats. (True, there’s an Impossible Döner Kebap made with the vegan kebap that bleeds, but most things end in -wurst and they mean business.) Bring some friends and have a sausage party, a $50 plate of six sausages that cries out for studious experimentation with the various mustards — plus a plate of bratkartoffeln, or crispy fried potatoes. You can taste the science, in a good way.
Of all the sausages, the Sheboygan was the sleeper hit, assertive and full of celery salt. (Good on ya for a change, Upper Midwest.) Apart from that, few surprises await. True to form, the Cajun was plenty hot, and the pale bratwurst had the finest texture. Bursting with garlic and fennel seed, which transported me to the caraway-studded sausages I remember from growing up, the Hot Italian felt like it might have taken a lot of tinkering to get that authentic flavor-texture combo just so. The biggest disappointment? Not a wurst at all, but the underdone sauerkraut, tamed to the point of uselessness.
If you want a proper sandwich, the merguez with harissa aioli on Turkish bread ($19) is the way to go. Like the sausage party, it comes with a side of creamy German potato salad that goes pretty light on the vinegar. And an order of roasted bone marrow ($16) dotted with mustards seeds would seem to have a surplus of lightly grilled sourdough, but it’s the better to scoop everything else up with.
More than two dozen taps mean near-infinite variety, including farmhouse ales like Brasserie Saison Dupont or the golden Tripel Karmeliet — although pours may be a quarter-liter of what other places serve as a full one-third. The fully fleshed-out kids’ menu feels like genuine parents to wee ones created it, while for adults, there is but once dessert, a deserving, $7 pumpkin seed brittle sundae with smoked sea salt that has an nouvelle old-timey quality, as if Laura Ingalls Wilder went to Innsbruck.
The focus is food, for sure. Heavy on featureless blonde wood and those horizontally slatted walls that look like mall retail after a store goes out of business, Wursthall’s interior is uninspired, and the tag-team service can get tripped up from lack of ownership. On one visit, nobody brought waters and on another, nobody checked in after the plates arrived. Asked which wursts came in the sausage party — which is listed on the menu as “chef’s selection” — one server merely replied that they were “in order,” even though six had been selected for us out of the eight options in all. It’s also bierhaus loud in there.
But the quality of the food is high, and it is consistent. The thing is, considering López-Alt’s eminently well-deserved reputation for being a demystifier of culinary techniques, Wursthall feels a little short of the gosh-wow factor longtime fans might clamor for. Maybe that’s not entirely fair; after all, it’s exactly what it claims to be. But I can’t be the only one who expects the guy who can pump out user-friendly recipes for Detroit-style pizza, chili verde, and overnight sous vide bacon in rapid succession to lob a few flawless curveballs. At least that bacon shows up on one of the bratkartoffeln. Its dominance of 2010s food culture is concurrent with López-Alt’s own.
Wursthall, 310 Baldwin Ave., San Mateo, wursthall.com