Ricky Hanft is the sausage king of northwest Indiana.
Currently in the case at the Wurst—his Griffith, Indiana, butcher shop—he’s stocking 30 different varieties of encased meats: among them French morteau, Ukrainian kovbasa, Vietnamese cha lua and cha bo, Armenian sujuk, Irish black pudding, North African Merguez, and Cajun boudin. There not a single jalapeño-cheddar brat to be found.
Since I last wrote about the former iron worker turned butcher and his pastured, whole animal shop, he’s both streamlined operations and blossomed in terms of his offerings. He works solely on Slagel Family Farm animals now, filling the cases each Thursday with some of the purest beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and muscle in the land. “We don’t label any of the cuts in our case,” he says. “Now our customers can easily point out what a teres major, merlot, toro, spider, and cross rib is. They’re also very happy when they come in and realize nobody has snagged the tri-tips or bavettes. When we first opened, I had a hard time selling those cuts because people didn’t know what they were or how to cook them. Now, the only cuts we have left at the end of the week are ribeyes and strip steaks.”
After his customers have cleaned him out by the end of the weekend, he locks the doors for a couple days, and he and his mom Patryce work on jerky, bacon, and a gallery of world sausage. “We’re learning a lot from our customers,” he told me. “Northwest Indiana is a cultural melting pot. We’ve been given family recipes from many of our customers that are now part of our regular rotation of products. A notable highlight last year was having customers from every continent (except Antarctica) stop in to purchase items for their holiday dinner table.”
A 75-year-old woman translated her mom’s longaniza recipe from Tagalog, and after he’d practiced, she declared Hanft’s version “98 percent there.” A group of women from a nearby church entrusted him with the recipe for parishioner Darlene Chevase’s chubby paprika-loaded Hungarian kolbasz, which they’d collectively retired from making. Jon Pokorny, hostinský of Irving Park’s Kedzie Inn, gave Hanft his Nebraska grandmother’s recipe for Czech jiternice, and the butcher made it happen.
I always tell people the Wurst isn’t just a great butcher shop on your way to Michigan. It’s a destination. There isn’t a single time I’ve dropped in that I didn’t leave with an armful of meats I’ve never heard of before.
But I get it. It’s a long drive. That’s why Hanft and a handful of his regional foodlums are bringing the meats north to the next Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up series at the Kedzie.
What’s that you say? He’s just a meat cutter? Not a chef? Hanft himself is self-deprecating about his kitchen skills, but when I first met him on the eve of the pandemic at Dumpling Fest 2020 at Marz Community Brewing’s taproom, he blew myself and the other judges away with “a black-squid-ink empanadilla stuffed with wild boar chorizo, perched in the bowl of a spoon atop a crumble of cured egg yolk with salsa brava and manchego aioli.” He has the goods.
For this Monday, April 18, Hanft has devised an eye-popping menu of carnecentric central European cuisine that entirely skips the “greatest hits” of the German American canon in favor of rare and unusual dishes that make up “a menu designed around using the whole animal,” he says. “It’s how I like to cook; using fat, bones, shanks, trim, fat, and offal. Using techniques that are butcher-related: sausage making, brining, smoking, and then contrasting and complimenting those flavors, textures, and colors. Highlighting peasant food, which is the best food, in my opinion.”
- Brotzeit, $18: Braunschweiger, mettwurst, hackpeter, speck, griebenschmalz, pickles, country bread.
- Eisbein, $20: crispy ham hock, red cabbage, split pea puree
- Sauerbraten, $12: skewered beef heart, golden raisin gastrique, potato croquette
- Saumagen, $12: pork and potato sausage, pickled onion, apple, curry sauce
- Krapfen, $6: lard-fried doughnut, bacon caramel glaze, cracklins
This dine-in-only menu features a groaning charcuterie spread, or in Deutsch, brotzeit, for “bread time;” just enough to prime your alimentary canal for the eisbein, a whole brined, smoked, braised-until-it-starts-melting pork shank, deep-fried crispy, and served with red cabbage kraut and split pea puree. There’s a large-bore pork and potato saumagen sausage—topped with melted onions and curry sauce; a marriage of a German haggis-type sausage and currywurst. For dessert, there’s krapfen, lard-fried donuts topped with bacon caramel glaze and cracklins.’
His sauerbraten is inspired by a Peruvian customer for whom he made the first anticuchos she’d eaten in ten years. Hanft noticed that the prep for the grilled beef heart skewers is not unlike the classic German vinegar-marinated braised beef roast, and guten appetit: beef heart sauerbraten with golden raisin gastrique and potato croquettes.
Hanft is bringing a couple cases of Helles Lager and Pils from Griffith’s New Oberpfalz Brewing, and he’s enlisted a whole crew of chefs he dubbed “the Wurst of Region” (a jab at the Times of Northwest Indiana, which somehow seems to overlook each of them in its annual Best of the Region awards). These include New Oberpfalz’s Nick Bane and Alex Riemersma; Jean and Dennis Thiele from Goblin & the Grocer in Beverly Shores, Indiana; Kate Rather of Green is Good by Kate in Crown Point, Indiana; and Tom Porter, former owner/head chef of The Highland Custard Shop and Porter’s House in Highland, Indiana—an old friend of Hanft’s dad and a mentor who’s been cooking since before Hanft was born.
But what about all those sausages in the case at the Wurst? The good news is that while this Foodball is strictly dine-in only, Hanft is bringing up a load of packaged sausage available for purchase. I’ll have an update on the selection in the coming days.
Walk-ins are welcome, but as always, I suggest you preorder right now, right here. Monday Night Foodball this April 18 is going to be the Wurst. See you at 5 PM, until it runs out. Meantime check out the ongoing Monday Night Foodball below:
- April 25: Roel Estanilla of @pigandfire
- May 2: Former Lost Lake chef Dani Kaplan with the return of Chick-Feel-Gay
- May 9: Dominican food with Angelina Bastidas of Tournant
- June 6: The triumphant return of Kedai Tapao (Malaysian)
4100 N. Kedzie