WHERE: 401 NE 28th Ave. Portland, OR 97232
Stammtisch- German for “regular’s table.” An information meeting of friends that happens regularly.
It’s been a while since I sat down at Stammtisch. Even before the pandemic, it didn’t seem like the kind of place that you ate or drank at by yourself. Having friends with you seemed as important to the German restaurant on 28th Ave. as large beers, pork, and spicy mustard. As it happened, I was usually alone when I worked in that neighborhood and would pass it by in favor of a quiet barstool elsewhere. Somewhere where I sit by myself, read, write, and let the afternoon slip away in solitude.
When I would go to Stammtisch with friends, the beer just tasted that much colder, the sausages that much juicier, and good things were that much more likely to happen. Case in point- the last time I remember sitting at their great slab of a bar, I had just run the Tabor Challenge 5K earlier that morning, and I was getting some dinner with my wife. We pounded delicious and decidedly non-local beers and split a warm pretzel (VERY local, having come from Fressen down the street) dipped in addictive bierkase and brown mustard. Then, after a quick trip to the john, I came back to the barstool and decided I was going to write a book.
That book will be published later this year. Stammtisch- as the name implies- is best enjoyed with friends and loved ones, and that is why I wanted to be there on my post-pandemic birthday last weekend.
Stammtisch has cocktails, of course- but decent as they are, they are for your friends who came along but don’t really like beer. Their tap list- almost entirely German/Bavarian imports- is what their menu was designed to be washed down by. Those who have a little knowledge of beer beyond it being “liquid bread” can find a style to suit their tastes. My wife, a lover of good helles and hefeweisens, branched out a bit with their Andechs Hell. I opted for the smoky smoothness of the Aecht Schlenkerla Rausch Helles. Call me basic, but I know what I’m about.
Given the communal spirit of the restuarant, it makes sense that the dishes are not divided on the menu into “Appetizers,” “Mains,” and the like. Instead, the dishes are divided into Small, Medium, and Large. A couple people could happily make a meal picking and snacking from a few of the smaller plates, such as the aforementioned pretzel, the currywurst, or their Kartoffelpuffer- a German answer to Jewish latkes. Bigger parties could share the larger plates, like their sausage sampler or braised rabbit. Only a few of their entries- chiefly the safe and unassuming hamburger- seem to defy the spirit of friendly forks swooping in for a nibble of spatzle or a bit of sausage.
As we sat and nursed our beers, I couldn’t help but notice that each table had a small plaque affixed to the end admonishing guests to be ready to share their table with other guests and new friends- a motif that must have felt more than a little bittersweet during the ravages of COVID-19. Fortunately, my friend Gwen was going to be available to celebrate with us. We’d finally get to eat out with friends- and Em and I used it as an excuse to indulge a little bit.
Like the millennial foodies we are, a childhood surrounded by (but rarely sampling ourselves) Kraft Lunchables primed us for the joys of a well-assembled charcuterie board. The opportunity to sample little bits of crafted flavor in endless variety is usually a siren song for Emily and I- and the fact that we will easily fill up on one before our main courses arrive is equally certain. When we were kids, our parents used to warn us about filling up on bread from the free baskets. As it turns out, they should have been just as worried about the pate and the braunschweiger. With a third coming to the table, however, we all confidently indulged in the sweaty, pungent cheeses. The crusty white and dense, biscuity rye breads. That addictive bierkase, and the velvety rabbit liver mousse were gone in short order. We did decide to order individual large decisions (sharing is best with variety) and continued nursing our drinks. Gwen is not a beer drinker and opted for the Kirsch Blasen cocktail- a fizzy little number of cider, lemon, and kirschwasser brandy.
As the plates arrived, I was immediately grateful for Gwen and Emily’s presence, because I knew exactly what my dinner would be when I walked into the building. First, Emily’s hamburger descended. Then Gwen’s giant, crisp-fried Wienerschnitzel- and finally, my Schweinshaxen.
Schweinshaxen. An entire slow-braised pig shank that, much like the bar, is also connected with my writing career albeit tangentially. The very first episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” that I had ever seen- the one that introduced me to his work- was filmed in Prague, Czech Republic. In one particular scene, Tony sits at a bar drinking giant mugs of golden beer and is served a similarly monumental piece of pig. In more ways than one, this dinner was bringing me full-circle.
The schweinshaxen was perched on a bed of warm red cabbage and velvety spatzle- a little acid and filling starch to accompany the fatty, tender-beyond-reason meat. They had given me a serrated knife, but I wondered if it was truly necessary. Tentatively, I pinched one of the two rib-sized bones and gave a gentle twist.
Nope, no knife would be needed. The bone slid clean and free like a hotdog out of an overly-toasted bun. A few twists of the fork broken through the crackling skin and semi-liquified fatty goo.
About a minute into the dissection of my plate, I realized that Gwen and Emily had stopped eating and were looking longingly at my plate. We were meant to be sharing, after all.
We composed bites of each other plates, and drinks disappeared. We talked about life. We talked about home, and work, and chores. Gwen and I pissed and moaned about the kitchens we love, then she and Em discussed story ideas and their favorite clothing stores while I finished my plate, pleased to be surrounded by love and good food after a long year and a half.
It was a good night, and a great birthday. When one finds themselves coming full circle- whether it’s a trip around the sun or strange waypoints in their career- they should be lucky enough to do so around a big table among friends, with food and drink like Stammtisch offers to lose the hours in.
WHEN: Monday – Thursday 3pm – 10pm
Friday – Saturday 11am – 11pm
Sunday 11am-10pm. No reservations except for parties of 8 or more.
WHY: Because it’s been far too long since you’ve seen your friends, and you need a place to eat where everything encourages you to share and see each other again.