POLKA SPOTS

The party's over--Oktoberfest, that is. So where does one go to score sauerkraut and bratwurst once the street vendors have disappeared? Where can a lover of schnitzels and German beer go to celebrate any old time?

German Corner Restaurant & Bar is one suggestion. This new, east Phoenix restaurant is serving up things Teutonic in a spacious, attractive atmosphere that is not overkitschified. Oh sure, you might hear an occasional polka or yodel slip from the sound system, but German Corner keeps the flags, steins, maps, souvenir china and posters of the Fatherland to a minimum. And no, the waitstaff here does not dress like Heidi and Hans in embroidered jumpers and lederhosen; they are professionally clad in black slacks or skirts with white shirts or blouses.

Once upon a time, what is now German Corner was a seafood restaurant. Even if you didn't know this, you might guess. The whole structure of the space screams Seventies "seafood galley," from the wide entrance and separate waiting room to the wood floors, wood railings and wood-paneled walls. I guess timber was used to evoke, oh, ships? To mimic the below-deck quarters of Queequeg?

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German Corner

4900 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018

Category: Restaurant > European

Region: East Phoenix

What's interesting is that it still works, in this context, as a German restaurant. The effect is homey, a refreshing change from fake adobe and tile, or stark white walls and industrial carpeting. I like the wood. I like the heavy lattice-back chairs and the homemade frills on the lamps. I like the oversize feel of the restaurant. It seems exotic and foreign--but then, I guess that's the idea.

Yet much is familiar at German Corner. The menu is straightforward and traditional. Dinner entrees emphasize pork in a plethora of preparations, various grilled wursts from the German Sausage Company next door, and the better-known beef dishes. All come with German side dishes we know, if not love: sauerkraut and red cabbage, spaetzle or bread dumpling, German potato salad or home fries, French fries and in some cases cold salad or soup. You don't have to worry about leaving this restaurant hungry. It's literally impossible.

"Now that's a German plate," our waiter exclaims. "Empty." He is admiring my dining accomplice's barren bauernplatte, which we have nibbled away to nothing over the course of the meal. When it arrived, this round wooden plate was covered with slices of smoked Bavarian ham, mild salami, what our waiter calls a "German cold cut," Swiss cheese and a "cuke," essentially a dill-less pickle. We use mustard and our light rye bread from Old Heidelberg Bakery next door to make little sandwiches. I recommend the bauernplatte as a tasty snack to share or as a cold-cut meal for one with a beer. German Corner serves an excellent bottled German nonalcoholic beer called Clausthaler if you want the taste but less than .5 percent alcohol.

Of the other entrees I like here, the grilled white bratwurst is everything it should be, and is thankfully served with decent mustard. I also enjoy the tender sauerbraten with red cabbage. I'm not as crazy about the Hungarian goulash, the rindsroulade or the Gypsy-style pork, because they lack the zest I think they should have--the zest that Bavarian Point gives these dishes.

Of the included starters, I'm happy to say that the soup and salad are both wise choices. One night I try a wonderful noncreamy lentil soup flavored with bits of smoked pork; on two other occasions the soup is good, but not outstanding. On the other hand, the trio of marinated mixtures served as "salad" at German Corner is always varied and exceptional. One night it's cucumber and dill, chopped tomato and onion and creamy coleslaw. Another night it's cucumber, tomato and lettuce. A third time, it's a cream-style mix of bell pepper, cucumber and tomato, coleslaw and German potato salad. Though I don't initially expect to, I like these salads a lot. They are crisp, cool and flavorful. They are not an afterthought.

I also like nearly all the side dishes, which is not usually the case with me at German restaurants. Here the bread dumpling is large, dense and warm. The spaetzle is white and noodly. The sauerkraut and red cabbage appease my tart-sensitive taste buds. The German potato salad is not as sweet as some versions, but fresh and good. The German home fries are pan-fried skinless potatoes; I like their crispy brown edges.

Three desserts are offered: German cheesecake, Black Forest cherry cake and apple-raisin strudel. Maybe I'm just too full to enjoy them by the time we get to this point in the meal, but none of them is a must-have, break-the-diet-for tempter. Of the trio, I prefer the creamy cheesecake, which manages to be sour yet sweet with a flavor reminiscent of pineapple.

Frankly, the biggest problem at German Corner is service. I've suffered through bad pacing, incredible waits and clumsiness--one night our waitress nearly puts her thumbprint in my impressionable bread dumpling, but I've seen an improvement over time. Trays to carry food and drinks would help, as would the institution of a bus station closer to the nonsmoking section. Or maybe the restaurant should hire a busperson to fill water glasses and carry away empty plates. There's nothing worse than staring at your plate for ten minutes after you're done.

Still, despite the inconsistencies here and there, German Corner is a strong addition to Deutschland dining in Phoenix. It gets better each time I visit. Right now the crowd here is mostly older folks and out-of-state visitors. In fact, one night we sit near a table of German tourists who videotape their meal when it is brought! But once the service snags are straightened out, German Corner might even become a place you and I would visit for an easygoing, moderately priced dinner or a brat and a brew.

If German Corner, Old Heidelberg Bakery and German Sausage Company form east Phoenix's mini-Deutschland, Zur Kate is part of east Mesa's German empire. This little restaurant and bar--the name means "smokehouse"--is located in the same Main Street plaza harboring Bavarian Point, the Valley's best German restaurant.

Zur Kate isn't as fancy as its critically acclaimed neighbor. This is a simple little place for hearty simple food. As at German Corner, Zur Kate carries German beer on draught, but you won't find imported nonalcoholic beer here. No, our waiter looks at us as if we're crazy when we ask him if he has any.

The cozy atmosphere here features dark wood, framed needlepoint and German paraphernalia such as flags, Alpine walking sticks and souvenir china plates. The booths are constructed of pea-green vinyl and the fading cloths that cover the tables pick up that green in an ornate, magenta-and-pink-flowered pattern. There's a broken-in feeling to the ambiance at Zur Kate that sometimes verges on worn out. You could say the same thing about the food. Home-style and unthreatening, it seems downright tired at times. For instance, the salad bar features weary, pink-edged iceberg lettuce, unappealing marinated salads and questionable salad dressings I wouldn't eat on a dare. The dense dark bread we're served is inedible. Acquired taste or simply stale? You make the call.

When our entrees arrive--we are having a late Saturday lunch--we have more questions. That yellow-tinged, mediocre spaetzle--made from scratch or from a package? My dining accomplice asks me if I think his leberkase (fine-ground Bavarian meat loaf) tastes like Spam. I don't know, I tell him; I've assiduously avoided Spam my entire life. As for my coarse-ground beef and pork bratwurst, it's good, but it would taste a whole lot better with some good Bavarian mustard instead of the yellow, watery, French's-style substance we're given. (Hey, I grew up in Rochester, New York. I've eaten enough French's mustard to last me a lifetime. It's made there.)

Basically, I'm not thrilled with anything I try at Zur Kate. This is one of those meals I long to forget as soon as it's over. The service here is adequate, but then, we're the only ones in the restaurant.

The moral of this eating episode is: If you make the long drive out to Bavarian Point and it's already full, give them your name and tell them you'll wait. Go have a beer at Zur Kate, but save your appetite for the food next door. German Corner Restaurant & Bar, 4900 East Indian School, Phoenix, 840-7838. Hours: 4 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; noon to 9 p.m., Saturday; 4 to 8 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday.

Zur Kate, 4815 East Main, Mesa, 830-4244. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday through November 18, then closed Sunday. german corner

You don't have to worry about leaving this restaurant hungry. It's literally impossible.

The grilled white bratwurst is everything it should be, and thankfully served with decent mustard.

German Corner is a strong addition to Deutschland dining in Phoenix. It gets better each time I visit. zur kate

I'm not thrilled with anything I try at Zur Kate. This is one of those meals I long to forget as soon as it's over.

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