To an outside observer, my recent love affair with The Good Wurst Company in Plaza Midwood began simply enough: I put down my phone and took a moment to appreciate the funk.
Except that, at the time, putting down my phone was no easy feat, and honestly, I just couldn’t be bothered to give a funk.
Maybe you’ve felt the same way. I mean, did any of us see that Omicron wave coming? (Of course we did. Because we’re not selfish, nor do we hate humanity. But how many times can you yell, “ENOUGH ALREADY! WEAR A FUCKING MASK!” at your neighbors before they call the police or try to evict you?)
The isolation somehow hit me harder this time.
Perhaps it’s because the wave coincided with my day job’s busy season. I never left my apartment because I couldn’t leave my apartment. I was glued to my desk, held captive by spreadsheets and crippled by the notion that if I took 15 minutes to shower or change out of the-day-before-yesterday’s wardrobe, the spreadsheets would just keep piling up. I was also scared to death that this time, finally, I might just be the one to contract COVID-19.
In such dire straits, my social interactions became confined to social media. That’s where my trouble began.
I’ve written before that social media ruins everything. Reading through one sugar-coated food post on Instagram after another, though, more than annoyed me this time.
It angered me. It compelled me to turn words into shivs and respond with force. Was scrolling in isolation turning me into an angry food writer?
That’s certainly not what I wanted. And just as I was about to engage with one of the more vile and casually racist of the local food sycophants, I told myself to stop and open up UberEats instead.
When in doubt, I eat my feelings.
And that’s how I found The Good Wurst Company.
When my food arrived less than 30 minutes later, I stared at it, slack-jawed and speechless. This has become my standard reaction to anything I’ve ordered from there, a bit Pavlovian perhaps, but one whose incipience I can trace back to that very first encounter with their Reuben-style tater tots.
The tots were so precisely prepared that they wore their crunch like a level-up suit of armor, tempered and seasoned with all the skill of a medieval guild.
Wee fistfuls of crisp and fatty pastrami crumbles were thrown into the mix, but the pièce de résistance was the cheese.
This cheese (a shade of yellow-orange so specific that Pantone has probably already assigned it a number) was caught somewhere between liquid and solid so that it lay atop the bulging mound of tots like a sitcom modesty towel.
Even better was the flavor; beer whipped inside that glorious goo gave it a yeasty, pungent twang that was unexpected and scintillating.
I wanted to get a picture of the whole thing, or to at least make an Instastory chronicle of the beautiful mess as it made its way down my chin.
But, no. This time was going to be different. This was food so good that I decided to put my phone down and take a moment to just appreciate the funk.
The best of The Good Wurst
I’ve ordered online from The Good Wurst Company 10 times since then, and each time has kept me from doing something stupid on social media.
When I decided to outsource my apartment hunting to my followers and ask for neighborhood and building recommendations, instead of blasting the local chef who sent me the address of a mental health clinic, I decided to play with potatoes.
There are more than just tots at The Good Wurst Company. It’s true. There are also fries.
Second only to the Reuben tots are the schnitzel fries. They will haunt you and make your breakfast better the next morning.
What I mean by that is, I don’t feel the need to inhale them all at one go. You wouldn’t be able to, anyway; a trifecta of creams — mushroom schnitzel gravy, mayonnaise and cheese — is intimidating even to the sturdiest of bon vivants.
Save some instead for the next morning (the Frank’s Red Hot sauce squirted on top doesn’t soak them, but actually makes them better the next day) and pair them with scrambled eggs. I figured out this secret after my fourth order.
When I’d had enough of watching food influencers use their followers for “original” content (“OMG you guys, where can I get, like, a great fish taco?” “OMG you guys, check out my NEW LIST of BEST FISH TACOS IN CLT!”), I had planned to post a thundering lamentation in response. But a friend talked me down from that soapbox and told me to go eat a burger instead.
The Wurst Burger, three times over, saved me from another mistake. Perhaps because it’s just so basic. I mean, that bun — the supermarket-brand stuff of wistful childhood memories.
Lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and cheese; I began thinking less about how an influencer might OMG-you-guys those humble ingredients and more about the poems I would write in their honor.
Single or double, but always with bacon, this burger — with a playful secret sauce dripping shamelessly about — was my comfort in isolation.
And when isolation made me question my own sanity, the endless scrolling through food fakery, shams and self-promotion causing my mouth to swell with bile and my hand to seal in an arthritic death grip around my phone; right as I began to click on Live Feed and ask anyone who would listen, “Why do I even bother?”
I remembered The Good Wurst menu and willed myself to ask instead, though only to my cat who by that point had grown curious, “Just how many schnitzels can one man eat?”
I have yet to come to a satisfying answer, though the number currently is greater than five.
Here, the classic chicken schnitzel sandwich is such a simple, consistent delight that it rivals any other in the Great American Fried Chicken Sandwich zeitgeist.
But the real fun comes in trying out different combinations of toppings. I’ve tried extra pickles with curry ketchup. I’ve tried sauerkraut and European mayo. I may have even tried the mustard cheese sauce. It’s impossible to go wrong. I think next time I may even try the spicy peanut sauce because why not?
Unlike endless social media posts of the unmasked living their best lives at my expense, this sandwich — and infinite iterations of toppings and sauces — will never disappoint.
A Central location
All of which is to say nothing of the times I’ve visited in person.
The Good Wurst Company is located way down on that stretch of Central Avenue where points on a map all seem to converge into one and the entire planet’s food cultures are there for you to experience, if only you make the effort to keep on driving straight.
I made the effort one day, once work had calmed down and once I received my shipment of KN-95 masks, to venture out of my apartment and meet up with friends for lunch.
Good Wurst offers indoor seating but also has a takeout window that is seemingly designed for the COVID-smart — another plus.
Finally, at a place called “wurst,” I had a chance to try the sausages.
In one version, (the currywurst frites) they arrived chopped up and thrown into a junk heap atop fries slathered in curry ketchup.
My goodness, they were good: house-made, gently spicy and red, with chunk and profound heft. I didn’t feel guilty at all picking at the bits of wurst while I left my friend with the fries. That curry ketchup left her transfixed, just as it had done to me weeks before.
In another, knockwurst presented itself not in any manner you’d expect from a sausage sandwich. It was sliced down the middle and stuffed spread-eagle in between a hard roll with Munster cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. It was delicious and required a two-inch stack of napkins to eat gracefully in front of people.
People such as owner Lincoln Clark, who made an unexpected and bemasked appearance outside at our table. I hadn’t made the connection to Fuel Pizza until I met Clark. Semi-retired from that business, he told me he opened The Good Wurst Company as an homage to, well, his life.
As a food writer choosing — or at least trying hard — not to be angry, that really got to me.
I enjoyed Fuel Pizza the one time I felt bad enough about myself to order it; it tasted how I needed it to taste, and it made me feel less pathetic.
But the food here at The Good Wurst Company feels three-dimensional and lived-in comparatively – junk food that’s like for like, yes, but the epic historical novel version instead of the slender Cliff’s Notes summary.
Just like the pork schnitzel sandwich, the menu’s magnum opus.
It’s a stacked beast of a sandwich, layered with sautéed red cabbage, mushroom gravy, smashed fries, Dijon mustard and pickles.
To hear Lincoln tell it, the pork schnitzel sandwich is his version of Before Sunrise, each ingredient a reference to a time and a place, an experience abroad, or perhaps a secret love affair that he’ll take to the grave.
Those are the stories I love, you see. More than the likes and sycophancy, or the listicles to grow my personal brand.
It took the food at The Good Wurst Company to pull me out of a dark winter, social media-addled funk to tell me something I knew all along.
But make no mistake. Even as I sit here in between bites of a pastrami, egg-and-cheese breakfast bagel sandwich (the bagels here are Montreal-style, blended with sugar, and marvelous), I still sharpen my shivs.
A CNN news alert pops up on my phone, with Twitter and Instagram notifications to boot. “With the Omicron variant still gripping the US…,” it begins, and all I really want to do is scream at someone to fuck off, wear a mask, and go choke on a knockwurst.