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Buzzworthy Beer and Brats
Carolyn Jung | Photo: Liz Daly | March 26, 2018
A food-science guru's much-anticipated restaurant spotlights his innovative approach to German-inspired fare.
J. Kenji López-Alt thought it was no big deal when he decided to help open Wursthall in his adopted hometown of San Mateo. But then he nonchalantly tweeted the news last year. And the whole world exploded. Or so it seemed.
After all, when you’re an MIT grad-turned-culinary sage of the highest order, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and managing culinary director of Serious Eats—where your The Food Lab column is dissected by legions of cooking nerds who fanatically hang on every word and technique—a family-friendly, biergarten-style restaurant all of a sudden becomes so much more than that. “I tweeted, and every media and website reported on it,” recalls López-Alt, flabbergasted. “I wanted to open a fun, casual place. But now, I feel that a lot of people have high to impossible expectations. The level of pressure and scrutiny increased a lot more.”
When the project involves the reigning king of compulsive experimentation who’s unafraid to upend convention with hard-won research, people can’t help but expect perfection—even if it’s merely in a deviled egg or bratwurst on a bun. And López-Alt doesn’t aim to disappoint. He and his business partners—Adam Simpson, owner of Grape & Grain, a small nearby craft beer and wine bar; and Tyson Mao, a project manager at Lyft—have a lot riding on Wursthall. Although López-Alt was a consultant on two other restaurants previously—New York’s Harlem Burger and Australia’s Jack’s burger joint—this 9,800-square-foot, 160-seat property is the largest any of them has ever tackled.
As San Mateo residents, they set out to build the kind of place they wanted to hang out in. López-Alt settled here almost four years ago, after leaving New York when his wife took a job at Google. As Simpson explains, “We thought the city was hurting for a place like this.” A place with soaring wood-beamed ceilings strung with Edison lights, including a cobalt bar with six wines on draft and 29 beers on tap, with different faucets specific to each brew’s country of origin. To streamline service and sustainability, no bottles are offered. Moreover, the restaurant is cashless. It is also absent a host/hostess stand. Instead, diners seat themselves to encourage more freestyle eating and drinking.
And what food it is. Simpson, a longtime fan of López-Alt’s work, sought him out to be a consultant. But López-Alt, who had been itching to get more involved in restaurants, wanted to contribute on a larger scale. He became a partner, not only designing the recipes and menu, but the kitchen layout and back-of-house operating systems. “The food is German-influenced,” says López-Alt. “It’s not authentic at all. People who know my style know that I like to take dishes that are well-known and try to optimize the elements that people like most about them.”
Take the limburger and rye, a traditional sandwich reimagined as limburger fondue that’s bruleed and served with seeded, sprouted rye bread crackers. Or the chicken schnitzel sandwich, made with chicken thigh, brined in sauerkraut liquid for added flavor and juiciness, then pounded and fried before being tucked into a bun a third of its size for maximum Instagram potential. Or the grilled butterkäse with sauerkraut & speck, a grilled cheese with the flavor of a Reuben, achieved by freezing the German cured pork belly, then grating it, before mixing it with grated cheese, so that meat and cheese melt and meld as one.
There’s also a secret menu item: Anything can be ordered “animal-style”—with caramelized onions, melted cheese and “Tausend Island” dressing (German for “Thousand,” naturally). Because making sausages in-house would require a dedicated refrigerated room, López-Alt opted to procure them from Dittmer’s, a 40-year-old Los Altos institution. San Francisco charcutier Peter Temkin makes the merguez, as well as a changing featured sausage. San Mateo’s Backhaus bakes the pretzels and rye loaves. López-Alt’s favorite item? The doner kebap made with Impossible Meats plant-based meat substitute that he doctored with sumac, cumin and oregano, along with transglutaminase or meat glue. It spins on a doner kebap vertical spit and is shaved off with a knife.
Although the kitchen uses six sous vide circulators, López-Alt doesn’t consider any of the food molecular in style. It’s all meant to be easily replicated by a crew led by chef de cuisine Jonathan Ruedas, formerly head of Eatsa’s commissary kitchen. López-Alt, a self-described stay-at-home dad with a 1-year-old daughter, doesn’t intend to be at Wursthall every day. Ironically, he and his wife rarely frequent restaurants these days. Of course, that may change now, especially when the lower level cocktails-only bar, cleverly named Underhall and accessed by a secret-like entrance, is expected to open later this year. “My wife and I have only been out twice in the past year without our daughter,” he says. “I can see coming here on a not-too-busy Tuesday for dinner or for a cocktail for date night. This is exactly the type of place that we thought was missing when we moved here.” 310 Baldwin Ave., San Mateo, 650.931.4282
Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley