"Where are you from?" the waitress asked in a singsong German accent as she handed me the menu.
"Um, Oakland?" I answered. She politely laughed, then waited several beats. "Oh, you are American?"
"Yes," I offered, "But my family is Swiss-German."
"Na, sprichst du denn Deutsch?"
"Ein bischen (a bit)," I mumbled, pointing to my friend Steven. "But he speaks more than I."
We heard not a single English word after that. I could pick out a phrase here or there, but mostly relied on Steven to translate "Should I clear away the plates now?" and "I'll just make some change for you." After a while, I stopped trying to mangle the ten words I knew, but the waitress would answer all my English queries in Bavarian-inflected German.
The entire exchange perplexed me, until I listened to voices filling the small, cheerful room. The couple behind us murmured to each other in German, and the bar was packed with German, Czech, and Russian men speaking a hodgepodge of heavily accented languages as they hunched over their steins. Each new arrival would go on down the line, shaking hands with everyone before sitting down. All of them looked like they were jonesing for cigarettes.
Steven and I were just about the only native-born Americans in the restaurant.
DJ's Bistro in Concord, which serves "fine European foods," has become Contra Costa County's gathering place for Mitteleuropa in exile. The owner, Jerry Sedivy, learned to cook in his native Czech Republic. "Eighty to ninety percent of our customers are from Europe," he says.
DJ's serves lunch and dinner, with similar menus. Tripe soup is the only appetizer on the dinner menu, but you needn't order it -- all the entrées include soup or salad. The portions are so big you could be in the Midwest.
The soup of the day changes; we skipped one night's chicken and noodle soup, because the server looked like she was apologizing when she said it, but couldn't resist another night's Hungarian goulash. (The goulash is available every night as an entrée.) The thin stew -- nothing like the hamburger and tomato-paste slag over macaroni I was served as a kid -- contained onions, peppers, beef, and potatoes. The broth was richly flavored with beef and what my tablemate pronounced "really good paprika."
The composed salads could have made a meal in themselves. Arranged around a bed of chopped iceberg lettuce were cucumber pickles, sweet pickled green beans, kidney beans, fresh cucumber slices, and tomatoes. I'd have appreciated a little less of the sour-cream dressing greened up with chopped dill, but loved its sweet-tart flavor. Substitute beets and fresh corn for the cucumber and I'd be at home in Amish country.
The entrées span the breadth of the Hapsburg empire. Unlike most restaurants in Central Europe, DJ's offers vegetarians more than salad and baked potato. But diners may want to tread carefully. The dishes are uneven -- not in their execution, but in their appeal to Californian sensibilities.
On my first visit, the sweet-tart dynamic of the salad dressing was carried too far.
The special of the day was echt Slavic: cabbage rolls in a tomato sauce. There wasn't much cabbage to the rolls -- one large leaf held together each two-inch-round bundle of finely ground, lightly seasoned pork, veal, and breadcrumbs. It had the texture and flavor of top-quality bologna. The rolls were bathed in a glossy tomato sauce that looked, and tasted, like ketchup spruced up with cinnamon and cloves. A vertically stacked double-scoop of whipped mashed potatoes loomed like an ivory tower over the red pool.
"Bohemian sauerbraten" differed widely from its German relative. The slices of beef were moist and rich, but there wasn't a hint of the sour that comes a from long marinating in red wine. Instead, the meat, as well as the rest of the plate, was covered with an inexplicably sweet and tart cream sauce. Its lemon-yellow color probably came from orange juice and a touch of curry powder, both overshadowed by the flavor of caraway. Arranged alongside were slices of moist, bland bread dumplings. These Czech-style dumplings, known as houskové knedlíky, consist mainly of bread soaked in milk and then rolled into a log of dough that is wrapped in cheesecloth and steamed.
On my second visit, accompanied by folks who had lived in Prague, Budapest, and St. Petersburg, I enjoyed our food much more. The waitress recognized me, but sensing the low Germanic quotient at the table, I guess, stuck to English this time.
Wiener schnitzel appears to be one of DJ's signature dishes; a plate of it appears on almost every table. The Wiener schnitzel (with lemon) and jaegerschnitzel (with sautéed mushrooms) are made with pork tenderloin, not veal. But the tenderloin was pounded into thin, very tender sheets, coated in breadcrumbs, and evenly deep-fried to a golden brown. A little salt, a squeeze of lemon, and voilá: Teutonic tonkatsu, perfectly cooked. There's only one restaurant in the Bay Area that makes better Wiener schnitzel: Das Michael's Schnitzelhaus in San Francisco. But that's only because the lederhosen-sporting Michael believes in sousing his veal cutlets in the traditional lemon butter. Sedivy's leaner schnitzel came with a scoop of chunky, colorful pea-and-scallion flecked potato salad.
The special of the day, beef stroganoff, was ladled over mashed potatoes instead of noodles. Though heavy on the salt, the stroganoff was richly flavored with mushroom and wine, and creamy from sour cream. The beef under all that sauce, like the sauerbraten before it, could be pulled apart with a fork. I wished we could have done the same with the roast duck. The half-bird turned out dry, which happens when you've preroasted the fowl during the day and reheated it for service. But the second heating melted away the rest of the fat and turned the skin into brittle crackling, which I happily peeled off and ate by itself. The duck came with braised red cabbage, which could have used more than pumpkin pie spices to pick it up.
The Moravian roast was superb. Thick slices of pork shank barely held together until they made it to the table, sauced in a thick pork gravy. Spaetzle -- which you could either call tiny dumplings or free-form egg noodles -- are served across the region under various guises. DJ's spaetzle were soft and freshly made, tossed with bits of crisped bacon and green onions for contrast.
When we asked about dessert, our server shook her head. "He didn't make any today. He was too lazy, I guess." (Sometimes they have strudel.)
At prices far less than your average bistro, DJ's is the perfect place to while away your evening over schnitzel and mugs of Pilsner Urquell. If not for the bright lights, yellow walls, and smoke-free atmosphere, you could be in some little pub in Prague or Berlin. But don't try to speak the local dialect.
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