by Dan Johnson
There are now two Wurstküches in existence not counting the ill-fated Denver branch, which we do not speak of in polite company.
Even if the aliens made first contact with mankind at the Venice location where they instructed the snap-button staff in the esoteric art of lactating Aventinus Eisbock from their nipples and squeezing gourmet Austin Blues pork links from their bleached sphincters, Wurstküche purists would still decry the Lincoln Boulevard store as second fiddle to the original ‘Küche.
It’s pronounced “cooch,” incidentally. Not to dissuade every Downtowner with a couple semesters of college German from attempting to form their lips with Bavarian precision around the Teutonic tongue twister.
I know this because I spent time slinging sausages at the ‘Küche in 2009. Mine was a brief season in Wurstville. My arrival was one of many awkward stumblings toward solvency precipitated by the boom or bust cycle of freelance creativity that has similarly fucked many of my colleagues over the eons.
In a glorious testament to the enduring psychic trauma of the protestant work ethic and the puritan guilt laid there-in, I recall attending the informal job interview (that I secured via Craigslist) in a shirt and tie. Not that my attire made any difference. Mostly the owner was trying to suss out whether I fell in the acceptable margin between total slapdick and outright thief.
After securing Tyler’s blessing, I journeyed up the steep incline of the ‘Küche learning curve to become a casual interloper in the world of Bauhaus themed, tube-wrapped protein service.
What a world it was. I say this as a grizzled veteran of yesteryear’s Wurstküche: today’s food servers are soft. We were a heartier bunch back then. The ‘Küche was a bizarre dojo. The managers were our instructors in a discipline of balance and pain.
We negotiated the dead-arm holding pattern facilitated by persistently unaware customers who stacked themselves like non-sentient rocks of humanity in the narrow confines of the bench tables.
We used the original (and heavy) red order numbers that most early customers placed face down on the table instead of up and obvious.
We learned to do more with less as our heavy breathing, Mike Ness adoring manager, James, steadily turned the lights down until the back corridor became a physical metaphor for some Joseph Campbell shit.
We stacked glass and checked the perspiration on the cucumber water jugs. Late at night, a few unlucky souls collected the condiment bottles and went to battle with the disgust-inducing golem of kitchen impedimenta known as the mustard pump.
We were privileged to live in the golden age of ‘Küching when drinking on the job was somewhat frowned upon but not forbidden. We pined for generous managers to prescribe us mid-shift doses of “sanity juice,” 9% alcohol German beer served to the brim in water cups. We were forbidden from sipping—a reorientation with good mental health came only with taking down the medicine in a series of strong, breathless gulps.
Eight years later and I’m overcome with nostalgia for the ‘Küche of yore. It still smells roughly the same. The mustard, the sausage and the heavy beer have a unique fragrance that will likely never be undone.
The reminiscence is not all delight. A seven dollar “veggie cho” sausage, no matter how delightful, will always remind me of an aggregate of shift meals that end with me leaving the ‘Küche ten pounds heavier. Further, the carefully curated blend of indie electronica soft rock disturbs me to the core. To this day, I suspect that the song “Burial” by Miike Snow is my Manchurian Candidate trigger song.
What wasn’t at all obvious during my tenure at the ‘Küche was that our dear little sausage kitchen would become one of the most influential service locations in Downtown.
No matter how you feel about the asymmetrical oddity caught conceptually between Portland and Potsdam, the truth is that its business model, its aesthetic and its success became a touchstone and bellwether for an entire generation of quick casual dining in Downtown. If Wurstküche could make it, so could x amount of other similarly conceived restaurants.
Proof of concept is nice validation, but the larger impact of Wurstküche is silent and tremendous.
It doesn’t take a twenty-year service veteran to pour beer, cook sausage and work a cash register. In a city where survival jobs are at a premium, Wurstküche opened its doors to hundreds of creatively minded drinkers and grillers who popped their service cherries there.
The ‘Küche is like culinary Kevin Bacon. If you’re out for a drink or a bite to eat in Downtown, you’re no more than a few degrees removed from someone who’s put in their time at Wurstküche.
I see Oscar most days at Guisados. Dylan and Steve-O will always and forever be the barroom heroes of Downtown Los Angeles in my eyes. The Travises are alive and well and doing the good gospel work laid out by Saint Matty. Jasmine owns a wildly prolific chain of food trucks where I have eaten far too many “wachos” to have the waistline I currently enjoy. I even ran into Johnny on Grand Avenue not that long ago. He’s doing OK.
El Tigre is on Facebook, naturally. Lord knows what happened to the Cricket.
For its cast of all-star human staff members, Wurstküche also had a way of singing a siren song to the douche bag set.
On my last day at the ‘Küche, I witnessed an ominous harbinger of Downtown to come. Power cut out during a rolling brown-out right as the dinner rush started. The hood fan and kitchen equipment wheezed to a halt and ‘Küche staff went into damage control.
In my final hours as a ‘Kücher, I was tasked with manning the front register and breaking the bad news to would-be patrons: yo, we can’t take orders.
Under the influence of one or more doses of sanity juice, I bravely shooed away a veritable host of diners. As if on cue with ninety seconds left under the watchful eye of Joseph and Tyler, a token Bunker Hill Bro strolled into the restaurant with what I assume he mistook for a female trophy of some sort click-clacking behind him in heels.
Without so much as a spare second with which to heed my warning, this BHB began shouting an order worthy of three or four grown men.
Finally, he paused to consider his dipping sauce options. I ambushed him with the bad news.
“I’m sorry sir, we’re closed.”
In no mood to be shot-down by someone making an hourly wage, he spat back, “what do you mean you’re not open?”
If I’d had a white board and some markers handy, I could have sketched it out in terms even his Cro-Magnon self could have fathomed. Kitchen + No Power=No Protein 4 Dingus.
Instead, I opted for the quick retort. “Don’t you worry sir, by the end of the night we’ll get one of our sausages inside of you.”
His corpulent face began to turn bright crimson.
“What the fuck did you just say to me?”
“Don’t you worry sir, by the end of the night we’ll get one of our sausages inside of you,” I repeated as I removed my server towel, pivoted, walked into the back of house and clocked out.
Fuck you, buddy.
I honor the ‘Küche for being a gateway to the janiform aspect of Downtown we are so prone to losing touch with. Here, you really get the best and the worst. That’s that. Savor the good for all it’s worth and tell the bad to sit on an uncooked kielbasa until they have to call in sick with botulism.
Unless you’ve had lapband surgery, eight bucks isn’t going to leave you feeling full at Wurstküche. Plus, the temptation posed by ample beer has a deadly and pricey allure. Still, I can’t help but feel remiss for not having sung the praises of this unlikely delight deep in my heart.
Surprise, surprise—I award Wurstküche a “1” on the binary and wonder where James Nichols is today.