We were eating a late lunch at the 2-month-old Esther's German Bakery & Café, and had plans for pastries and coffee, when she noticed trays disappearing from the gleaming, marble-topped case. But the trays came back, restocked. Even at the end of the day, Esther Nio does not run out.
The newest child in Esther's family of food providers sits modestly in the little strip of shops between Armadillo Willy's and Estrellita's Mexican Restaurant in Los Altos. Lunchtime parking can be a challenge, and you may be overcome by barbecue vapors until you enter Esther's, which used to be the Second Cup coffee shop.
Esther and Robert Nio opened a wholesale bakery four years ago, to satisfy a longing for Germany's hearty breads and pastries with real cream. Now Esther's products are hard to miss. Among the outlets nearby are Palo Alto's farmers markets Saturday and Sunday, the Sunnyvale farmers market, Piazza's, Draeger's, J.J.&F., Country Sun, the Milk Pail and Dittmer's. Recently, Esther's cracked the Berkeley Bowl, a renowned temple of foodie worship.
The family came here in 1977 for Robert's high-tech job. Esther, who studied advertising and psychology, does not do the baking. They brought in a master baker from Germany.
Within the next few weeks, the old Taco Del Mar in the San Antonio Shopping Center will turn into a retail Esther's bakery, with some seating for coffee drinkers. The goods are baked in a warehouse on Old Middlefield Way, Mountain View.
But if you want lunch, breakfast or beer, go to the cafe.
It's a handsome cafe, from dark wood floor to walls painted mustard yellow and ketchup red. A cuckoo clock, German periodicals and capitalized menu items like Echte Laugenbrezen (pretzels) promote a spirit of Guten Appetit! So do workers in pink and white ruffled aprons, which are universally unflattering. In the carpeted back corner, beanbag chairs and plastic toys welcome small children and nursing mothers.
Including a little beer garden with picnic tables in the back, the cafe seats about 40 people. Many of them are likely to be speaking German. There are German-American schools in Mountain View and Menlo Park.
You may need to ask for someone to clean the table, or for syrup to go with the fabulous apple-topped German pancake ($6.95). The staff is friendly but a little scattered. Maybe it's the aprons.
For the budget-minded, the Student Breakfast ($4.50) is a diverse and hefty combo-pack of breads with German jam and butter. Breakfast tops out with the "Schlemmer" ($11.95), a feast of smoked salmon, salami and other cold meats, cheeses, egg, bread, jam and butter. Esther's also serves omelets, French toast and fruit bowls.
Coffee and espresso drinks are made from beans roasted German style, light and mild, but rich.
The pancake is available all day, but the signature lunch is the bratwurst plate. The fat, juicy sausage comes with cold potato salad and warm sauerkraut that makes mincemeat of the steamed strings that ballparks serve on hot dogs. This is smooth, soft cabbage spiked with bacon.
Esther Nio is from Munich, where the potato salad is made with mayonnaise, parsley and pickles, and served cold, picnic-style. If you're looking for warm bacon drippings and vinegar, a more familiar style of German potato salad, look to the sauerkraut on the same plate.
There is one problem: All the juices, from brat to kraut, run together. Next time I'm getting my brat in a bun ($4.95).
The three tenors of savory strudel are meat ($9.95), spinach-cheese ($8.95) and salmon-asparagus ($10.95). Each features a flaky, golden crust around the filling, and is accompanied by soup or salad. The recent spinach-cream soup would have been better warm than tepid.
Bakery items hail from all over Germany. The popular poppyseed-cherry strudel is traditional in eastern parts of the country. Bavarian farmer's bread combines rye and wheat flour, sourdough, ground caraway and fennel. And the flourless Muesligiegal, a granola bar topped with chocolate, was suggested by a customer.
Esther's German Bakery & Cafe
987 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos
7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday
8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday
8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday