A Special Casing
Valhalla Table’s sausage house concept largely comes from LA, but the most-inspired items hail from Indonesia
Just in case you’re wondering, Valhalla Table’s idea isn’t new. It is almost an exact replica, if not a loving copy, of Wurstküche in Downtown LA. The similarities are undeniable: the biergarten-style communal tables, the twice-fried Belgian fries with unusual dipping sauces, the imported beers and microbrews, and of course, the sausage sandwiches themselves.
Like Wurstküche, Valhalla Table’s menu begins with bratwurst listed in a column headlined “Classics” and continues onward to the “Exotics,” where a duck, bacon and jalapeño sausage sounds like it’s cribbed directly from the former’s lineup. It’s like a hipster take on the hot dog stand: purposely (if ironically) old-school, but simultaneously revisionist in the same way that the Counter has updated the burger.
To paraphrase Jonathan Gold, a good sausage sandwich deserves another, and so does a good concept. But I wonder if this sausage-house formula, though proven in LA, is in untested and perhaps unfriendly waters at the Camp in Costa Mesa, which has long been the territory of the unshaven and the vegan.
Another risky move? The menu incorporates more than one Javanese element, additions made by the same Indonesian family that also owns Layer Cake Bakery in Irvine. I worry that this part of it might muddle the message for those who would expect sauerkraut, not sambal balado, with their beers and brats.
My advice to the curious but undecided carnivore, however, is to embrace the Southeast Asian island archipelago’s treasures as their Dutch imperialist colonizers have. Valhalla Table is at its best when it is honest about itself.
In fact, I’d order the wild boar Balinese over the bratwurst. The latter is a bland shadow of what the German staple should be, but the former is gloriously flavored with blasts of ginger, lemon grass and other spices, an apparent homage to babi guling, a much-beloved dish of whole roasted pork that’s more ubiquitous on the island paradise than Speedo-clad Australian tourists.
After the wild boar, take in the sweetly evocative Korean barbecue beef sausage and then the brow-dampening spicy Cajun andouille, in that order. All are burnished with the searing char of the griddle and rest inside a sleek torpedo-shaped bun nicely toasted to form a moisture-proof barrier against the juices.
Demand the aforementioned sambal balado as a topping if you dare (and you should), keeping in mind it’s been tamed to spare the Western palate. This version of the Indonesian stir-fried chile paste is more tomato-y and less hellishly hot than the chile-powered original. Still, you’ll sweat.
Then take in the gado-gado salad, a bed of field greens garnished with fried onions and tossed in a tart vinaigrette. The dressing surreptitiously incorporates the flavors of traditional Indonesian peanut sauce so well that even my mom was pleased. And contrary to what you might think, the fried tofu is an integral part of the traditional dish—it wasn’t just added on to kowtow to all the vegetarians lurking around.
Influence from other Asian countries infuses the dipping sauces that accompany their well-cooked-to-brown Belgian fries, which are roughly cut in a rustic style. I personally favor the funky mango curry dip for dunking my potato spears, but most will relish the sneaky heat of the sambal ketchup, even though it’s really just Heinz adulterated with chile.
But back to the sausages. All have the snap of the natural casing as a constant, but their length and girth differ from specimen to specimen. Though this feature stands as incontrovertible proof that every link is custom made in-house, it will inevitably elicit envy when you see that someone else’s is bigger than yours.
As they say, size doesn’t matter; though fattiness does when it comes to sausages: the more unctuous, the better. Every bite needs to spurt grease and to serve as a reminder to get your cholesterol checked afterward. This absence of fatty decadence is why I’m not as fond of the chicken-and-apple sausage. It’s simply too lean. Though I haven’t tried them, I would expect the same of the vegetarian options, which they’ve recently added.
Their vegan Kung Pao “chickin,” however, is too far out to ignore for my next trip there. I’ll ask them to slather it with extra sambal balado as insurance, and I’d advise the stray vegan who might wander into Valhalla Table to do the same. “Relax,” I’ll tell them. “The only animal who might be harmed by this sambal is you.”
Valhalla Table, 2981 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 549-2960; http://valhallatable.com. Call for hours. Sausage sandwiches, $6-$7.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.