Hardly anyone living in Berlin needs an introduction to Currywurst, a sliced sausage slathered in curry ketchup. Since the 1950s, this street snack can be found on most corners of the city. But in far away sunny California, the combination's a novelty.
“It works well. It's just definitely un-American,” says Millie Jefferson who laughs as she spears a piece of sausage with her tiny wooden fork. “It's a mini vacation in my mouth.”
Jefferson and about a dozen other diners sit in Southern California's first Currywurst restaurant called simply, “Berlin Currywurst.”
On a Saturday afternoon, the tables are packed full of tattooed twenty-somethings. They sample a variety of non-traditional combinations like Bockwurst with jalapeno, and paprika sausage doused in a tomato-jambalaya sauce.
The owners of “Berlin Currywurst,” Hardeep Manak, his wife Lena and their friend Haike Buentemeyer, moved from Berlin to Los Angeles last year to fill what they saw as a gap in Southern California's culinary culture.
Manak says when they looked for interesting and inexpensive dining options in Los Angeles, “There was nothing much around. You had high-end dining, and fast food, but nothing in between. We asked ourselves why is there no Currywurst?”
The tiny restaurant squeezes into a strip of LA's hip Silverlake neighbourhood. A gourmet gelato shop hawks flavours like goat cheese and Sicilian pistachio next door. Around the corner sits a gourmet vegan restaurant. It's like restaurant row for hipster foodies.
Manak says even though many of his customers are adventurous eaters, this is their first time trying Currywurst.
“I would say 20-25 percent of the customers have been to Germany and know what Currywurst is,” says Manak. “But lots of people don't know. They think it's a kind of modern Indian and German fusion food. And they get even more confused when they find out my wife is German and I have an Indian background.”
Their restaurant pairs traditional preparation with modern flavours. The bread comes from a local German baker. The sausage is made by a German butcher. Even the small wooden forks are sent to the restaurant from Germany. To give the dish a modern twist, customers can add ingredients like chipotle, garlic and ginger to their bratwurst. A sauerkraut salad with oranges and carrots, or homemade french fries with onions are available on the side.
The restaurant's only been open a few months, but local gourmands have taken notice. Food websites like Yelp and Chowhound rank the place high and customers like Matt Saladino pop in several times a week.
“Oh my God, it is so good,” says Saladino as he scarfs down a double portion of Currywurst. “I really could eat it everyday.”
Saladino says the décor at the restaurant is what first caught his eye. He liked the black and white photos of Berlin and the stripped down look. German food though was the real novelty for him.
“I work with a lady who is from Hamburg and so my only impression of German food was that Wienerschnitzel is not like the hot dog chain that we have...that it's a pounded veal,” he says. “So I don't know that much about German food. But after eating Currywurst here, I would like to get across the pond someday and try real German food in Berlin.”
Berlin Currywurst's success is part of a German food phenomenon hitting the area. Since Manak's restaurant opened this spring, another Currywurst joint popped up in Los Angeles. There are also two new German-themed restaurants in the city of angels and a third opening this fall.
The success could be a result of simple economics and aesthetics. These restaurants specialize at serving hardy food in a hip environment for under $10, a rarity in LA.
Manak is happy that the appetite for Currywurst is growing, but he sees his role in Los Angeles as more than a businessman.
“We are not just here to sell sausages. For us, it is also important to bring the message how the German youth culture is these days, especially in Berlin. It's more than sauerkraut, biergarten, brezel and dirndl.”
When asked if he might bring his brand of Currywurst back to Berlin (especially the vegetarian sausage option), Manak says “Yeah, many Germans ask us that. They say our Currywurst tastes better than the original in Germany.”
Sacrilege? Perhaps Berlin’s signature snack simply tastes better sitting in the California sunshine.