My jet lag had not yet worn off as I headed out in search of sustenance. German phrases still rattled around in my brain, the ink in my passport had barely dried, and recent memories of schnitzel and sausage tugged at my taste buds.
I had a craving for real, honest continental cuisine, but didn't know where to find it in this molecular gastronomy-fueled, postmodern-infused, food trend-crazed city of ours.
That's when I stumbled upon Cafe Europa and found just what I was looking for.
A record player in one corner plays old-timey jazz tunes. Neighborhood regulars populate the small bar, nursing beers and chatting about the Old World. The restaurant is quiet enough to enable a good beer-fueled conversation, but not so quiet that you feel like everybody knows your business.
Even though the place has only been around for half a year, it exudes a warm, comfortable, lived-in feeling, as if it's been in the neighborhood forever. It manages to feel homey and foreign at the same time.
Ambience and food are perfectly matched. Heartily portioned dishes are easily sharable, rich and filling but not too heavy. Chilly Richmond nights scream for a steaming-hot bowl of red borscht, which somehow achieves a complex depth of flavor and lively brightness with clean flavors of beet, celery and onion tied together with fresh herbs and a cooling dollop of sour cream.
I never knew I liked borscht, but with every warming spoonful I found myself craving another earthy, tangy bite.
Two starchy starters, pierogies and potato dumplings, battle for attention on the appetizer menu. We had two types of pierogi — mushroom and potato — and while the dough was delicate and cooked to the perfect texture, the fillings were almost too subtle, their delicate flavors hard to pick up under the garnish of sliced scallions and crispy fried onions.
The dumplings, impeccably formed spoonfuls of potato, won us over with their soft, pillowy texture reminiscent of really good gnocchi. They're served swimming in a creamy mushroom sauce, a rich and savory complement to the dumplings and tasty enough to spoon up on its own, which also accompany the richly spiced goulash, a delightfully thick, meaty stew.
Having eaten at least one pork-based item on every day of my European journey, I tempered my expectations here, not believing that anything cooked in the US of A. could possibly hope to stand up to the classic porcine dishes I'd flown thousands of miles to experience.
One bite of Cafe Europa's pork schnitzel, however, quickly put the smackdown on my snobby assumptions. Crunchy, golden breading with a touch of warm spice gave way to a meltingly moist pork cutlet, tender and deftly seasoned.
The house-made pork sausage, with its beautifully browned skin and masterfully melded meaty interior, quickly jumped up the ranks to take on any sausage I've had in Europe or elsewhere. And the accompaniments — creamy mounds of mashed potato, sharp mustard and mellow, savory bacon-studded sauerkraut — beautifully rounded out each bite.
The beer list, while strictly European, is nicely varied, offering a wide spectrum of styles, and beer and food pairing is half the fun of dining here. If you're missing Europe, or dreaming of it, Cafe Europa is the next best thing — in some ways, it's even better.
Location: 4318 California St. (at Fifth Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 386-1000, www.europasf.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Price range: $6 to $18
Recommended dishes: Potato dumplings ($9), red borscht ($6), pork schnitzel ($15), sausage with pork ($15), goulash ($16)
Credit cards: All major