Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sausage King: A Taste of the Mother Country in Mission Hills

This past Saturday I had several friends over for brunch. During the week, in anticipation, I was obsessed about what I was going to serve. And, of course, I was also pondering what I going to cover for San Diego Foodstuff this week. I partly resolved the first by lighting on a recipe from Bon Appetit for baked French toast topped with blueberries and pecans—but what to serve with it? Fresh fruit, of course, but what else? I needed a protein and after discarding the idea of bacon (love it, but don’t love the lingering smell in the kitchen for the week after), I lit on sausages. And, if sausages were the answer, then I needed to go to the Sausage King in Mission Hills—thereby resolving my second issue.

Sausage King is a longtime stalwart on West Washington St. in Mission Hills. Sitting for more than four decades on the block between Falcon and Goldfinch, it’s actually a rather intimidating place from the outside. Just a glass door alongside a long silent wall that shows no hint of what’s going on inside. So, I’d never ventured in before. My bad. It’s a local favorite for a reason.

For those who haven’t read the many articles on the place, Sausage King has been in business for 44 years. Long a partnership between sausage master Fred Spenner, a native of Kassel, Germany, and John Krodel, a Wurstmacher from Bamberg, Germany, who died just over a year ago, Sausage King has provided local customers with the flavors of the mother country. In its heyday, the partners had five shops around San Diego and processed some 25,000 pounds of meat in the side room of the Washington St. shop.

Those were the days when there were several slaughterhouses in the region from whom the Sausage King could purchase fresh beef, pork and veal. Today, says Spenner, who continues to run the one shop on his own now, there are no more local slaughterhouses. But that doesn’t mean the meat they use isn’t fresh. The pork, Spenner says, is flown in fresh from a slaughterhouse in North Dakota.

The store is the essence of the anti-hip, a throwback to a long ago time of formica floors and bulky steel cash registers that required strong fingers to press down recalcitrant number keys. (I recognized the Sausage King’s register as a cousin of one my maternal grandparents had 40 years ago in their Alhambra laundromat.) The shop is small and dark, definitely in need of a fresh coat of paint, but lush in the aroma of smoked meat. Little four-inch sausages reminiscent of beef jerky hang in a long row behind a case filled with more sausages; salamis; sliced lunch meat; imported cheeses like Edam, Gouda, Austrian Swiss and Beer Kaese; and pickled herring.

Today, Spenner produces 34 sausages and lunch meats on site as well as 10 different smoked meats, like Westphalian ham, Black Forest ham and bacon. All with the help of an enormous meat grinder, an intimidating sausage machine and two hickory-fueled smokehouses—one hot for items like bratwurst and knockwurst and one cold for salamis.

Hot smoking keeps the smokehouse at a steady, hot temperature to cook the meats. Cold smoking doesn’t cook the meat, but flavors and preserves it before they go into the enormous refrigerated room to dry. There they hang or sit in rows on shelves.

In the refrigerator I saw several large salamis collecting thick mold, which Spenner explains is a necessary part of the process. “Mold pulls out the moisture from the meat onto the casing to allow the flavors to develop as it dries,” he says. “If you don’t get mold, you won’t end up with a good-tasting salami.” Of course, the mold and casing are pulled off the salami at the end of what is apparently a tricky process to achieve in San Diego, where the humidity is variable and constantly has to be monitored. “When I told people I was going to make salamis in San Diego, I was told it couldn’t be done because of the inconsistent humidity,” says Spenner. “But, we were able to overcome it.”

Spenner also sells several cuts of fresh beef and pork, special cuts just right for a good schnitzel for instance.

And, if you’re longing for a taste of Germany beyond meat, you'll find shelves filled with chocolates—Lindt, Ritter Sport, Asbach brands—along with mustards, coffee, jars of pickles and sauerkraut, packages of noodles and mixes for traditional dumplings, spaetzle and other dishes. Sausage King also brings down fresh baked goods from Streit’s German Bakery in L.A. You can pick up fresh streudel and coffee cake as well as any of a variety of rye breads.

But, really, it’s all about the sausages and throughout the morning, people filed in to get their fix. According to Spenner, the liver sausages and the wieners are the top choices. And, why not? The wieners once cooked, have an irresistible snap of the natural casing from the first bite and are packed with various seasonings. (I can’t tell you what they are—Spenner refuses to divulge closely held recipes.) And the best part? No fillers. In fact, not a heck of a lot of sodium either. With all the tasting I did that day, I didn’t end up with the puffiness you get from commercial sausages and salamis that are laden with salt.

The salamis were heavenly. There’s the spicy Hungarian salami, a gorgeous red and packed with flavor.

The yummy cervelat, made of minced pork, beef and bacon and cold smoked, is a little milder, as is the German-style salami. I also tried the Thüringer, a deeply colored beef salami with a full rich smokiness.

At the shop, Spenner gave me a taste of one of his smoked meats, Schinkenspeck, a prosciutto-like dry-cured ham, part ham, part bacon and just too good for one’s own good.

From, there I moved on to the lunch meats—he handed me a slice of veal loaf still warm, chewy and spicy with a hint of nutmeg, then made up a package for me of a light and chewy head cheese, bologna that tasted nothing like the Oscar Meyer I had as a kid sandwiched between slices of Wonder Bread; a fulsome blood and tongue sausage; and German minced bologna. And, for the first time, I tried liverwurst, It is as smooth and creamy and flavorful as pate, even if it’s made from pork, not goose.

But, what to serve at my brunch? I chose smoked bratwurst, a link of beef blood ring sausage and a regular bratwurst. All were hits on Saturday. Okay, only my friend Jolene and I ate the blood ring sausage, which I sliced and heated on the griddle along with the other sausages.

And, for good measure, I bought a weiner, bockwurst and knockwurst.

Those, I took over to my parents’ house to sample for lunch with the lunch meats, a jar of Inglehoffer stone-ground original mustard, garlic pickles and a loaf of Streit’s Berliner Land Brot rye bread. There, we had a feast reminiscent of Saturday afternoon lunches at my paternal grandparents’ when I was a kid.

Sausage King is located at 811 West Washington St.

Have some thoughts about Sausage King or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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  1. Now I'm really hungry! Always a danger on your blog. It is so hard to find decent salami that one is tempted to move to San Diego. Glad brunch went well, xo, Garret

  2. This is Yuma Az needs ........

  3. This place is great and a San Diego institution.

  4. Unfortunately, Sausage King has closed. Fire in winter of 2010, they never recovered.
    They had the best of the best of all meats.
    And the beat goes on....

  5. What is the Phone number the Sausage King ??

    1. Sadly, Fred died, there was a fire, and the shop closed.