Put it in your mouth: Altengartz German Bratwurst

With such an astounding variety of downtown food carts, it’s hard to know which ones are good and worth eating at and which ones are shady, or worse, just mediocre. Altengartz German Bratwurst (S.W. 10th Avenue at Alder Street) is one of the keepers and you should eat there. Simple. It’s very straightforward. The sausages are spiffy, there are both meat and vegetarian options, the cart is open relatively late, and you will stay full for at least two hours.

Rather than attempting to dazzle prospective diners with a cornucopia of creative menu options, Jameson and Ana at Altengartz operate on the “don’t fix what ain’t broke” philosophy, offering one kind of Oregon-made bratwurst with a handful of traditional, successful topping choices. If you don’t eat meat, you can have a veggie bratwurst. If you want a side dish, there is potato salad and green salad. That’s what they do, and they do it well.

Altengartz’s bratwurst gets everything right. First and foremost, the casing snaps with each bite. The tender pork filling is deliciously but not overwhelmingly spiced, and it is free of scary, gristly bits. The sausage is cradled in a soft roll and you get a choice of toppings. A brat with sauerkraut, caramelized onions and fresh garlic ($5.25) makes an excellent combination: the onions are plump and flavorful, the garlic has just enough presence to provide a zing without tasting strong, and the sauerkraut is mild and not too vinegar-y. A sausage with German/Swiss K�se ($5), a fondue-style sauce made with surprisingly mellow Swiss cheese and white wine, is mild enough for kids or those not especially fond of Swiss cheese, and can also be combined with the other toppings if you want to go all out.

The veggie bratwurst ($4) is fascinating because it has much of the flavor of a real bratwurst due to the same combination of spices, but the texture is closer to falafel. In any case it’s flavorful, doesn’t fall apart everywhere, and with some of the above toppings it would be a satisfying alternative to the real thing although, sadly, there is still no vegan product that mimics the rubbery snap of animal intestine.

For only $1.50, the house-made potato salad makes a nice compliment to all that meat- or veggie-brat. It is creamy and zesty without being heavy or gross, and creates an instant feeling of being at a picnic or in the heartland. The palate-cleansing lemonade ($1.50) is made with fresh lemons, and you can really taste it.

While many food carts cater exclusively to the 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. business lunch crowd, Altengartz kindly considers the rest of us with weekday hours from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., and as an added bonus and genius marketing move the cart reappears at Southwest Second Avenue and Ash Street weekend nights from 12 a.m. – 3 a.m. to serve drunk and hungry club-hoppers. The brats have even made appearances at First Thursday and Last Thursday, providing relief to scores of unlucky art fans who came too late and missed the olives and cheese. Never have I seen anybody make such good use of the cart aspect of a food cart.

Frozen sausages are also available for purchase directly from the cart or online at www.germanbratwurst.com, so you can one-up the Joneses at the next barbeque.