Editor’s Note: Cafe Zentral is now closed.
Imagine your neighbor invites you to a backyard cookout. And instead of plunking your brat in a regular old, split grocery-store bun, your neighbor drills a hole in a warm, homemade pretzel bun, drizzles homemade sauce inside and slides your brat into that. It’s got just the right balance of meat and bread in every bite, with the added bonus of a thick, chewy, slightly bitter crust.
Pretty great neighbor, right?
For a while that neighbor was Russell Klein, chef and owner of Meritage in St. Paul and Brasserie Zentral in Minneapolis, toasting these magical buns for friends and family. But now anyone can get them at Cafe Zentral, his casual skyway venture.
Before opening Zentral, Klein and his wife, Desta, traveled through central Europe, exploring the street food, the cafes and the food culture. They fell hard for the pretzel dogs they saw in open-air markets in Salzburg and other Austrian cities. Street vendors there stick a bun on a hot metal spike to simultaneously make a bun-length hole and toast the bun from the inside.
The couple started calling the dogs München Dogs. (No, Munich is not in Austria, nor did they see a lot of the pretzel dogs in Munich. But München is really fun to say, isn’t it? München, München, München.) And Klein couldn’t get those street vendors’ hot spike machines out of his head, so he hunted one down. München Dogs didn’t make much sense on the classic French brasserie menu of Meritage, the Kleins’ only restaurant at the time, so the machine mostly came out for backyard barbecues.
A skyway lunch haunt, on the other hand, one with broad European street food influences — that was the perfect home for their hot spike machine. “Frankly, sausage is not a big stretch for Minnesota, anyway,” Klein says. “So Cafe Zentral just made sense.”
The München Dogs have pride of place on a menu that also features elegant, easy crepes, panini and salads, built on strong European flavors like smoked salmon, mushrooms, rye, kohlrabi, lingonberry, duck confit, and gruyere.
With the München Dog ($7), however, there are only two elements you have to think about. Pick a sausage — a brat, a classic hot dog, a smoked Slovakian link with a fantastic snap, or a sweetish-spicy currywurst — then pick a sauce. Cheese is a natural. Sweet mustard straight from Germany is a good choice. The garlic aioli has a nice bite.
But really, it’s all about that bun. They’re baked fresh every day in Brasserie Zentral downstairs, just like the soft pretzels available at the counter. (For $1 could there be a better snack?) And the crust is perfect: deep mahogany, measurably thick and with that ineffable bitter-brown Bavarian flavor.
In the skyway. In your neighbor’s backyard. On the streets of a medieval Austrian berg. It’s a perfect bite.
Cafe Zentral, 505 S Marquette Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55402; 612.520.7686