New Bohemia boasts beer and brats
After settling on a Lift Bridge Farm Girl Saison and ordering up six different sausages from the friendly front counter at New Bohemia Wurst and BierHaus, the new restaurant occupying half of the enormous space left behind by the Panera at East Hennepin and University avenues, I thought I was done with my difficult decisions for the hour. "Oh, you get a free relish on each sausage," said the man behind the register, referring to toppings like peppers and onions, sauteed mushrooms, or one of the krauts (the spicy red kraut is the best). On hearing this, my mind started to reel, imagining all of New Bohemia's "classic," "premium," and "adventurous" sausages combined with each of its relishes. It was like those word problems you used to do in math class. You know, the ones where Carmen has five pairs of pants, nine shirts, and four pairs of shoes and you're supposed to figure out how many outfits she can make from those pieces. "What kind of event is Carmen attending?" I'd write on my worksheet, trying to prove I was an out-of-the-box thinker. As it turns out, elementary school math teachers don't always encourage this sort of existential line of questioning, but I finally realized that finding all possible outfits was a matter of simple multiplication.
New Bohemia's concept and menu seem simple enough, but armed with my intimate knowledge of elementary word problems, I worked out that this fast-casual spot has the ability to serve 144 sausage and relish combinations, 432 if you throw all the different mustards into the mix. "It's true, sausages are a simple food, but you can play around with them a lot," says co-owner Jeff Bornmann. "They lend themselves well to experimentation, and that's what we like to offer. All the sausages we sell are picked for quality and variety."
Ah, so they aren't making them in-house. How will they ever compete with their stalwart next-door neighbors, Kamarczuk's? "Our concept was really born out of two major trends," Bornmann explains. "One was the success of the fast-casual model and the other was the craft beer market, which has obviously just exploded here. And we didn't know it until we opened, but locals seem to really like the 'adventurous' sausages. I think those really set us apart, as well as our beer selection." He's cagey about who is supplying all these sausages, which makes sense, since their unique selection is what allows them to be competitive. But he does reveal a bit about their local ties. "We get different sausages from all over, but a few do come from Deutschland Meats in Lindstrom, Minnesota. Also, our buns are made locally by Saint Agnes Bakery," Bornmann reveals. "They were designed to our specifications, so it's a denser bun that really caramelizes when it's thrown on the griddle. So many we tried out got soggy. I hate a soggy bun."
Despite New Bohemia's ordering out when so many new restaurants are producing in-house, the fast-casual idea is certainly a smart one for this area, a popular spot for downtown workers to pop over and grab a quick lunch. New Bohemia's owners have created a successful hybrid of the European beer hall and the Chicago hot dog stand. There are long communal tables so you can rub elbows with fellow sausage fans and lots of sunny single seats that allow you to grab a dog and look out over the rapidly changing storefronts on Hennepin Avenue.
As far as the aforementioned adventurous sausages, there's something for everyone: a gutsy and deliciously fatty Italian sausage made with wild boar; a pheasant sausage I wanted to love but that was just too dry, with an almost jerky-like layer you have to work through to get to the moister meat; and a really nice, lean, but still rich buffalo cheddar sausage. There's also one sausage in the adventurous category that Bornmann says is not only the most popular of the "odd ones" but has recently surpassed the traditional bratwurst as the best-selling sausage on the entire menu. "The rattlesnake-rabbit sausage is one that I think people are just so curious about they have to try it." We did, and while we liked the whole predator-and-prey idea, the two textures just didn't play that well together or make for a totally out-of-the-ordinary experience. It got the ol' "tastes like chicken" seal of approval. The classics section of the sausage menu includes a mild Italian sausage as well as a veggie version that Bornmann says can be "found at Whole Foods and other restaurants around town," but the best of the classics was the Old Time, a snappy pork hot link with loads of spice. Finally, the premium section introduced us to the sweet and garlicky maharlika, a Filipino sausage that was a big hit; a serviceable Cajun andouille; and Bornmann's favorite but oft-overlooked sausage, the smoky jalapeño Llano link, named for the town in Texas where it's made. Sides of Belgian frites with various dips, vinegar- and bacon-laced warm German potato salad, and poppy-seed coleslaw round out the basic menu.
The beer list is skewed toward mostly local craft beers, with a few Europeans on tap and more in bottles. Bohemia also has a handful of gluten-free beers (many of the sausages are too) and a few nonalcoholic options on tap, including Sprecher root beer, always fun for the kids. The bar program is headed by Catherine Pflueger, former general manager of the Happy Gnome, and Jason Alvey from Four Firkins, which tells you a lot about what you can expect from New Bohemia's 32 taps. Though Bornmann hired some beer-scene heavyweights, he says he really wants the focus to be on embracing the beer novice. "I've been to places where they're kind of like, 'If you don't know what you want in a beer, then what are you doing here?' I don't want us to be like that at all. We are really about education, and the beer flights let you experiment a little and talk with your bartender about what you like."
So for fans of wild game and unique meats, this place may become a lunch-time supermagnet. Bornmann wants to make sure those folks never lack something new to try. "Next month we'll be adding elk sausage, one will be duck, and we'll do an exotic sausage of the month." Now there's a delivery-by-mail club we might actually want to join.
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