By Jane and Micheal Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
On a beautiful Portland, Oregon, spring day, Gretchen Eichentopf described the scene at Otto’s Sausage Kitchen just a few months earlier. In mid-January, snow and ice had paralyzed the city, but Gretchen’s husband, Jerry (Otto’s grandson), lit coals in the sidewalk grill and cooked hot dogs as usual. “They came in sleds, on skis, and wearing snowshoes,” she said. “Some sat outside at the picnic tables, bundled up and eating with mittens on. Those are people who need a wiener every day.”
Any day you need to eat a wiener in Portland, Otto’s is the place to go. The Eichentopfs make their own. Just outside the front door of the family butcher shop, three kinds are marshaled on the grill grate: basic wieners (beef, pork, and spice in a sheepskin casing); smoked links (medium-ground pork in a hog casing); and chicken sausages (also in a hog casing). When one is ordered, the grill man gently lifts a single link to a hot part of the grill, turning it with his tongs as many as a few dozen times and constantly moving it to and from areas where the coals are high and white, until the skin is mottled brown and glistening all over. It is never poked, cut, forked, squished, or in any other way abused. When done, it is placed in a basic roll—regular, whole-wheat, or potato. The Eichentopfs don’t want interesting buns, because they believe that bread’s role is to convey sausage and condiments. In fact, it’s not uncommon for customers to order their dogs bunless and eat them with plastic utensils.
We do not recommend a knife and fork, however, because they deprive you of the initial exhilaration of snapping your teeth through the crisped veil of casing, liberating hot sausage juice. Chewing Otto’s wienies is half the fun. The smoked link is firmly packed, with a muscular mouthfeel as different from an ordinary hot dog as mortadella is from bologna. The chicken sausage is even more dense, a juicy tube steak radiant with basil and garlic. The grill-cooked crackle aside, a natural casing is vital, Jerry contends, because it seals in moisture and keeps the sausage from drying out.
“I eat one every day,” he told us. “For quality testing: Is it browned enough? Is it hot enough? Is it juicy?” In our opinion, his sausages are so extraordinary that they test the limits of wienerhood and probably ought to be classified as something else. We should also mention that while the buns are bland and the condiments ordinary, Gretchen prepares wickedly good side dishes, including hot German potato salad made with large nuggets of Otto’s smoked bacon. And the choice of beers is awesome. There are five on tap at $3.50 a pint—Pilsner Urquell is always available, as is Otto’s IPA, made by local microbrewery Raccoon Lodge—and, in refrigerator cases, some 160 different brands from around the world. As for dining accommodations, in addition to picnic tables lined up along the sidewalk, bare four-tops are arrayed indoors (where bulk meats are sold and deli sandwiches assembled using house-made cold cuts).
Jerry advised us that the fundamental principle of good wiener grilling is coal control. “You need to keep them hot; coals die. You must tend them as much as you tend what’s on the grate.” He also noted that the portable grill Otto’s uses, which is the sort of family-size cooker a householder might have on a backyard patio, is the same one they’ve used since they started cooking out on the sidewalk some 25 years ago. And although the grill is regularly cleaned with a wire brush, there is no substitute for the seasoning time imparts. “I call it our two million dollar grill, Gretchen joked, having calculated selling 300 to 400 hot dogs every day for the last quarter century at the current price of $1.75 each.
Gretchen and Jerry were teenagers when they met and fell in love working in Otto’s butcher shop. She covered the counter, he picked pig heads. “We took out the brains and put them in the liverwurst,” he wistfully recalled. “We had two or three pigs hanging every night.” Since then, the meat business has changed dramatically, and Otto’s now buys quarter hogs rather than whole ones, but the variety of sausages available is an impressive anachronism. The regular repertoire includes bratwurst, bangers, Danish medisterpølse, kielbasa, Weisswurst, Mettwurst, Swedish potato sausage, chorizo, linguiça, and Italian sausage. Plus, of course, there is summer sausage, braunschweiger, fresh liverwurst, hunter sausage, and salami, as well as bacon, ham, pepperoni, corned beef, and pastrami. On occasion, some of Otto’s specialty sausages make it to the restaurant’s charcoal grill, but many, such as Tuscan sausage laced with Chianti and pumate, require too much time over coals to be practical as an everyday sidewalk offering. They are mostly for home cooks.
In fact, charcoal-cooked wieners are but a fraction of the business in the family store, where smoked meats have been the specialty since Otto Eichentopf built a smokehouse in the back some 75 years ago. Like the grill, the smokehouse has attained a luxurious patina over the years, and it is saturated with the perfume of burning alder wood. A sign outside advertises game processing. One day Jerry showed us racks that held beautiful hunks of just-caught salmon, speckled with pepper and beginning to absorb smoke. He also makes shockingly flavorful beef jerky that is nothing like packaged brands. “What you see in a convenience store is usually a ground meat that’s pressed and dried,” Jerry scoffed. “We cut the whole leg of beef into strips, cure them for three days, then smoke them for another three. It’s the old kind of jerky, what Billy the Kid or Davy Crockett would have chewed.”
As we chatted with Jerry and Gretchen about smoke and sausage over lunch inside the store, we were joined by their daughters Heidi and Christie and Heidi’s six-month-old son, Tanner. As the sweet smell of smoked meat wafted through the air, the boy cheerfully gummed his pacifier—an uncooked wiener.