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October stands for a lot of things. Crisp apples. Peak foliage. Carved pumpkins. But most important to serious celebrants of food and drink, October signals Oktoberfest, that little-understood but much loved German holiday.
In Munich, where Oktoberfest began as a royal wedding bash 180 years ago, the yearly festival runs for two weeks, ending on the first Sunday in October. This explains why Oktoberfest is celebrated in September--something that's always confused me. You see, though a quarter of the blood that swirls through my veins originated in the land of great beer and bread, I never knew my German oma. She died when my dad was a boy. I grew up in a ethnically bland community where Rotarians turned Oktoberfest into a fund-raising gig, selling bratwurst and Budweiser. Worse yet, in all my travels I've never crossed a German, or even Austrian, border.
This is not to say I've never eaten German food. I have. In American cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York. Not often, but often enough.
So, in honor of my ancestry, and because it's that time of year, I thought I'd test the local waters for German restaurants.
Felsen Haus is first on the agenda, primarily because it's centrally located on Camelback Road in Phoenix. I've heard mixed things about this restaurant. People have told me it's funky, funny and friendly. These same people have urged me to go there and "drink from the boot."
I call ahead to see if the restaurant's new owners have anything planned for Oktoberfest. A young woman answers the phone. When she realizes I'm not talking about Rocktoberfest, she relinquishes the instrument to an older woman. "We have to get a license," the second woman tells me. "We do a beer garden outside in the parking lot. If we don't get the license, we'll do it inside. Of course, every day we have our German food, our German music and over 32 kinds of German beer."
I hang up the phone. It is time to visit Felsen Haus in person.
We enter the restaurant through a back door off the small parking lot. On the night we visit, there is a decidedly unpleasant smell lingering in this rear hallway, and I don't think it's boiled cabbage. As for the dining area, it's dark and dingy. Decoupaged walls juxtapose bikini-clad, navel-baring Bavarian beauties with misty Rhine castles and other travel agency issue. There is no nonsmoking section.
My dining accomplice and I are quickly seated and given menus. I can't resist trying a new beer, so I ask our blonde, pigtailed waitress to recommend one. "I'll bring you one I like," she says. What is it, I ask her. "It's hard to say," says she. "But it's good."
She brings me a large (25 ounces) bottle of Spaten Pils Munich. I end up leaving about half of it, but what I drink, I enjoy. It's a nice German beer, bitter and thirst quenching.
Selecting what to eat is a tougher matter. While considering our options, we are entertained with "live German music." An organist stationed between the bar and dining room pumps out tango-flavored polkas. Right now he's playing "Spanish Eyes." The bumper sticker on his keyboards reads "Shut Up and Dance."
When our waitress buzzes by for the third time to take our order, I settle on the schlachteplatte. In Germany, schlachteplatte means "butcher's platter." There, it commemorates hog-butchering day and is likely to include delicacies like boiled headmeat, black pudding and liver dumplings. Thankfully, at Felsen Haus, it's more like a sampling platter of Americanized German favorites.
My accomplice orders the fleisch roulade. "That's my favorite," our waitress murmurs. Question: Are waiters and waitresses trained to say this to men, because traditionally the man pays the bill? It sure seems to happen a lot.
She scurries off to the kitchen with our order. Within minutes she returns with soup and salad. Goulash soup, that is, and German potato salad. As Bobby Vinton's "My Melody of Love" is rendered with a military backbeat, we examine the food in front of us. I expected my cup of goulash soup to be a hearty tomato/beef/macaroni kind of thing. What I get is thin, red and disappointing. There are no vegetables in it at all. The salad has been smacked on a lettuce leaf without any thought to visual aesthetics. I'm not that keen on how it tastes, either, though my accomplice is satisfied.
We do like the bread that is brought to us. My favorite is the salzstange--a long rye baguette studded with salt and caraway seeds.
The organist launches into another tango. This one's a teaser. Our soup and salad plates are cleared and our dinners delivered as we puzzle it out. The family at a nearby table also struggles to name that tune. They wave down our waitress and ask her what he's playing. "It's a kind of a Spanish song," she says. "He ought to have a program list," the woman suggests.
Our waitress calls over to us, "Do you know this song?" I tell them I think it's "Hernando's Hideaway." The woman looks skeptical, but her husband nods in strong agreement. "Okay," she says, unconvinced. "I guess you're right."