German food sports a bad rap. It's no exaggeration to say that the term "gourmet German cuisine" is seen as an oxymoron. This is partly because much traditional German food is heavy, perhaps well-adapted to soaking up the country's justly famous beer. It's drinking food, if not precisely drunken food.
But one area where German cuisine excels is its charcuterie, the craft of prepared meat products like sausage, terrines and bacon. Charcuterie's origins lie in preservation of meats during a time prior to modern refrigeration. Germany's sausages and terrines are particularly excellent. And that's what led me to Carlsbad's Tip Top Meats (6118 Paseo Del Norte) as part of my Best Sandwich on the Planet tour.
More specifically, I went there for the presskopf—headcheese—sandwich. Contrary to its name, headcheese is not actually cheese at all. It is, however, made from the head of a freshly slaughtered hog. After being carefully shaved—usually minus the brains, eyes and ears—the whole head is stewed, skin and all, and then molded into a large, gelatinous, wonderful meatloaf of fun. And that is its problem; it's easy to understand why this might be off-putting to some.
But consider this: the cheeks of almost any animal are among its most tasty parts. All the fatty tissues and gelatinous collagen in the head make for a creamy matrix holding together tasty morsels of meat flavored with vinegar, garlic, bay leaf and spices.
And that's the star of Tip Top's headcheese sandwich: The flavor profile, somewhere between top-quality Italian bologna and spice-infused ham, only barely suggests offal. If you didn't know it was offal, you wouldn't know it was offal. For many, the problem is that they know (or fear) it is. But the richness of those cheeks and all that collagen—spiked with just enough vinegar to make the flavors pop—make for a luxurious sandwich.
Tip Top's liverwurst sandwich, featuring an inch-tall slab of liverwurst—a sausage made with a high percentage of liver, veal and spices—is another good choice. The ratio of liverwurst to rye bread (quite good) may be over-the-top. But, truth be told, all of Tip Top's portions are enormous. Every sandwich in the place has, and I couldn't possibly make this up, three halves.
Tip Top does creditable versions of German classics such as sauerbraten, rouladen and schnitzel. But if it's not going to be a headcheese sandwich for me, it's definitely got to be the Oktoberfest Platter, featuring three sausages—bratwurst, polish and knackwurst—served with German potato salad, sauerkraut and red cabbage. While the sauerkraut is unspectacular and the cabbage overly sweet, the potato salad is superb, with perfectly cooked chunks of potato and a spritz of acidity. The sausages, of course, are excellent.
A trip to Tip Top Meats won't make Germany your next destination for culinary tourism (though perhaps it should be). But it will give you a chance to appreciate German charcuterie, particularly in the form of a superlative headcheese sandwich.