Author’s Note: I started writing this piece sitting in the Wolverine Tap Room, watching results from the Michigan primaries. Romney, Santorum, Sausage. There’s a punch-line in there somewhere. But I digress.
A few weeks ago I received this message via Twitter:
I’ll admit I was skeptical. I’d read the news about Theo’s closing and a buckeye moving in. I assumed it would be another dollar draft-night hole with bar food only a Huron/Eagle could love (Bring Back the Wooden Nickel!). That said, I respect @schoolmuse so I googled the menu. Curious.
It’s now been weeks since that note and I’ve been to WURST a handful of times. It’s my latest obsession. I love the food, admire the business plan and absolutely relish the combination. It’s not often I root this strong for a place in Ypsi. Hear me now, believe me later, the WURST BAR ROCKS.
Author’s note: Lest you judge me, know that I am not some patronizing affluent Ann Arborite finally discovering the spender of Yplisanti. My first house was in Normal Park between Manfield and Wallace. Yes, I graduated financially and moved eight miles west in search of better schools for my daughter, but know this, I believe in you Ypsi. Later this year I’ll be posting a broader Ypsi piece, praising the more of the great folks fighting to make Ypsi the St. Paul to our Minneapolis.
BACK STORY In case you’re not familiar, Theo’s has been a campus staple for years – over 30. As I shared with @schoolmuse, it’s even where I first used a fake ID to drink underage. I was a 16 year old junior in high school. But I digress.
Last fall Theo’s long-time owners decided to retire. The business went up for sale and one-time EMU student-turned-Buckeye-restaurantuer Jesse Kranyack seized the location. Jesse runs a popular seasonal joint on Kelley’s Island, the slightly more civilized neighbor to the Lake Erie drunken boobfest known as Put in Bay (god bless the bay!). The seasonality of Kelley’s Island accommodates a collegetown business. But does feeding the captive boat crowd provide foodie cred?
CLEVER, FRUGAL, COOL Before we talk food, let me explain what GastroBoy sees when he enters WURST. Cash flow. That’s right, because you know what makes a restaurant succeed? Cash flow. Yes, I also love opulent Mani, but I’m guessing it’ll be 3-5 years before they see cash-on-cash returns. Can they sustain that and survive? Or will this be the next vacant storefront draining our tax revenue? (The answer is YES Mani will survive, we’ll see for other recent openings) When I go out I’m not only a diner, I’m a resident. I care about our community and want to understand a business’s impact on our local economic landscape.
WURST takes a constructive approach. First – it’s a smart low-rent, high-traffic location, unlike Depot Town which is just low-rent. Second, and perhaps more enterprising, WURST is a work-in-process business. They were closed for a meager 13 days to remodel and re-open. They have the intestinal fortitude to quietly continue construction while they’re open for business. Yes, the current bathrooms are worse than the old Tiger Stadium, but give’m time.
And while the WURST may be light on capital investment, it’s steeped in cool. They made smart design decisions that not only save money, simultaneously create a place even hipsters will adore. Vintage movie posters and Ikea chandeliers create drama. That fashion is married with a kitchy juxtapose of animal lust, achieved with alternating antler chandeliers and repurposed bar stools covered in varied animal pelts.
Instead of investing in new service-ware, the meals are delivered in bread loaf pans. And WURST employs a brilliant new iOS software platform that’s practically free to merchants as compared to the thousands of dollars IBM-like systems get for their registers and printers. Customers gush at the sight of an iPad for taking orders. I gush at the brave frugality.
MENU Now let’s talk food. The menu takes the same resourceful approach to excitement. It’s a relatively small offering. But don’t be fooled. Every single item is thoughtfully orchestrated to amass significant flavor. There are two primary options, sausages or burgers. And like the decor, the WURST impresses with simple still inventive execution.
The menu is printed in two columns, each section (burgers or WURST) has “USUAL” and “UNUSUAL” columns. Don’t misinterpret, “USUAL” is by no means pedestrian. And don’t be a sissy. Some of the “UNUSUAL” choices may sound ridiculous (crunchy peanut butter on a burger?), yet deliver 10-fold on creative, inspired new flavor. And all meat is ground in house. This is fresh butcher-shop quality. In both brats and burgers, you’re also presented two options for bread, pretzel or brioche. Finally, while the meats themselves are steeped in flavor, you can amp it up with your choice of masterfully prepared toppings (Sauerkraut, Kimchi-Kraut, Sauteed Onions, Sweet Peppers or Spicy Peppers).
SAUSAGES First let me say, I’m thrilled to see sausages getting their faire share of the limelight in the world’s recent haute-cuisine food scene. I’ve noticed a few instances of sausage getting highlighted on new “cool” menus. WURST wins first-strike glory in Washtenaw (Metzger’s aside).
With a name like WURST you’d better deliver the goods. Mission accomplished. The USUAL section leads with a cheeky named PBR (Poached Bratwurst) of pork, marjoram, ginger, celery seed, coriander. Like everything on the menu, it’s killer. You can be confident that the rest of the USUAL suspects will live up to high standards of identity.
The UNUSUAL side is down right nuts. And by nuts I mean brilliant. Behold these three unique recipes: Turducken (duck, turkey, chicken, pecans, cranberries, apple), Rabbit, Fig & Viognier (rabbit, chicken, fig, cumin, coriander), and the leanest sausage offered, Bison & Lamb Merguez (bison, lamb, pork, harissa, sumac, fennel). I want to know the crazy man who endeavored to combine those ingredients. He’s good people.
BURGERS With a name like WURST, it’s also easy to miss the burgers. Don’t make that mistake. These babies are glorious. And while I’m sure to create angst with this statement, I genuinely believe they rival, if not best, Side Tracks. The “anything but plain” burger is ground brisket, short rib, chuck & umami spices. The real trick within the USUAL world is cheese. WURST makes a pimento cheese that rocks as an appetizer. As a burger topping it brings amazing flavor without over powering the beef. And the hot/cold combination is a welcome change to the traditional luke-warm blanket of cheddar or swiss.
As with the WURST, the UNUSUAL burger options are serious contenders. This is where the signature house burger lives. A WURST Burger starts with the fresh patty, then tops it with a bratwurst, sauerkraut and Swiss. That’s right – meat on meat! One of my dining partners tried the Nut Burger (aged cheddar, bacon, crunchy peanut butter). He was more than complimentary. I’m still undecided on whether I prefer the pretzel or brioche rolls. Know that both are solid options.
Author’s note: Cooking beef past medium is an affront to good taste. If you order a burger well-done I will know – and you will get a demerit.
BAR Now let me warn you now…visiting WURST at lunch on a workday will create horrific disappointment as you forego ordering a beer. The taps rotate a series of brilliant Michigan craft beers. And directly behind the bar is a glass-door cooler filled with bottles and cans of more lusty brews to further challenging your restraint. Need a suggested pairing? Ask. The servers and tenders know malt and hop science as well and the fat-to-meat ratios in their sausage. While I haven’t had it, there’s also rumor of a custom WURST Bar Ale brewed by local favorite Corner Brewery.
Don’t let lunch-time beer-abstinence deter you from a nooner at the WURST. They’ve also loaded the cooler with a host of “Craft” sodas. The primary line is Sprecher’s, the poster child of Wisconsin German, and a truly fitting accompaniment for brats and burgers. They also have Mexican Coke in glass for those who prefer the familiar. All of the sodas are great. I’m personally a sucker for ginger ale and grape soda.
ACCOUTREMENTS One word – Tots! WURST skips the whole fry movement, instead opting for the latest potato “it” item popping up on menu’s across America, tots. To establish a unique to experience they offer traditional Yukon gold or sweet potato. I like getting 50/50 (half of each). As if sweet potato tots weren’t good enough, they take it six clicks further by accompanying the sweet potato tots with house-made cinnamon-marshmallow mouse. Think of it as gourmet fluff. It’s incriminatingly good. Here’s another nod to their crafty work-in-process attitude. When asked if they make the tots in-house I was told, “not yet.” I can’t wait to taste the next generation. Similarly, WURST currently offers four great mustards with each meal and those too will eventually be house-made.
Got Kiddies? Come on in. While this is clearly NOT a high-chair haven, the kidlets will be thrilled with the Corn Dogs. The menu does not list hot dogs independently and I forgot to probe further. My spawn eats sausage, albeit without the adventurous toppings. Little people grow into big people. Start the food exploration early.
So there it is, and a few hundred words shorter than my norm. You’re welcome. Now go out and try the WURST. I dare you, cross Golfside and don’t look back. There’s good eatn’ in Ypsi too.