Parsells Avenue is part of a residential neighborhood. Children and dogs play behind chain-link fences in shaggy grass, men and women gather to chat on porch stoops, and teenage men bicycle bare-chested down the street, their wheels gliding past a broken bottle or two.
It's not where you'd expect to get a taste and feel of Germany, but there it is: Swan Market.
A small deli-restaurant, Swan is filled with hunting trophies (taxidermied deer heads, pheasants, and squirrels look down from the walls), celebratory pig and German tchotchkes (flags festooned with tassels and Bavarian seals, signs with happy pigs hungry to eat ham, 32 oz. steins) and, most importantly, food.
One wall is lined with German treats, from chocolates to breads to pickles, while the dining area is separated from the kitchen by a 12-foot deli case bursting with a tantalizing array of meats: bratwursts, sausages, smoked hams, steaks, pork chops, bacon. All meats are hand-cut and all sausages are house-made under the care and supervision of the market's owner Barry Fischer.
Deli items can be picked up any time during Swan's open hours, but lunch is only served Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. At the height of the lunch rush — Saturdays, or during the live music performances on the last Thursday and Friday of each month — you'll likely be in for a wait. It's worth it.
Diners are seated elbow to elbow at long, communal tables that are covered with blue-and-white checkered plastic tablecloths. Each seat has easy access to bottles of Hoffman mustard, slices of German rye and brown bread (drier than what Americans are used to), and a slew of Styrofoam plates, either for the bread or to share your lunch with a friend (should you choose to be generous).
Service is prompt and friendly, and your server will bring you one of the beers on tap while you mull over the day's rotating lunch choices. The sausage platter ($7.50) comes with your choice of two house-made sausages and two sides. Each sausage that I tried (six, and that was just scratching the surface) was served piping hot. The meat was flavorful and provided a satisfying snap with each bite. The two standouts were the smoked bratwurst, with a rich smoky flavor that complements the pork, and the andouille. While andouille is a sausage of French origin, it shines at Swan; the heat is spicy enough to spark the tongue to crave for more.
The sides are served warm and, on the whole, are outstanding. Both the sauerkraut and red cabbage are in perfect balance: the 'kraut's sufficiently pungent notes are present but not overpoweringly so; the red cabbage is well-spiced, sour and sweet, and doesn't make the common mistake of being cloying nor heavy-handed with clove or cinnamon.
The German potato salad is marvelous. Its texture is less like American potato salad and more like smashed potatoes, with a creaminess amidst the chunks of potato. Vinegar gives the salad a welcome brightness and bits of bacon provide an added flavor punch.
The one less-than-thrilling side is the noodles, served with or without gravy. Though the gravy is studded with sizeable chunks of pork, the noodles themselves are bland. They made me long for spaetzle — which happens to be served only on the final Thursday and Friday of each month.
Another lunch option is the cordon bleu ($8.50 with two sides), which comes out sizzling. A burst of steam emits once you slice into the fried pork cutlet; the melted Swiss blurts out onto the plate and reveals thin slices of ham tucked inside. This is comfort-food goodness, and I'm a sucker for smoky ham, gooey cheese, and breaded-and-fried pork.
If, like me, you have difficulty making a single choice in the face of many delicious options, try the sampler German garbage plate ($8.50), which comes with a selection of the day's meats and four sides. During my visits, the choices both times were jager schnitzel, roast pork with stuffing, and rouladen. While each item is not a full-sized portion, you will probably have leftovers to take home.
The roast pork is tucked under a hunk of stuffing and a bit of gravy. On one visit, the pork was on the cool side, but remained tender and mild. The stuffing is flat-out delicious. Dense without being heavy, it's wonderfully savory and flavorful, in no small part because it is made with house-made sausage.
A traditional German dish, rouladen is not my favorite. It holds the promise of being delicious — thin pieces of beef wrapped around fillings that include bacon, sausage, onion, pickles, and mustard, all topped with gravy — but I've yet to taste a version of the dish that lived up to its description. I feel the same way at Swan: the beef, though flavorful, is chewy and overwhelms the flavors of filling.
The jager schnitzel, a breaded pork cutlet that's fried and topped with a mushroom-studded brown gravy, is the best of the plate's bunch. The gravy has a home-spun quality, like something your grandmother would cook — assuming she is both good in the kitchen and German. The mixture allows the onion and butter flavors to stand tall next to the mushrooms, and provides a nice textural contrast to the crispy cutlet.
Swan's rotating meat selection and casually convivial atmosphere make it a lunch spot to visit again and again. Each time I dined — once with my husband, once with a good friend, once with a couple and their 2-year-old son — my party was welcomed, well-served and well-fed.
And it's cheaper than a plane ticket to Frankfurt.