Felsen Haus, 1008 East Camelback, Phoenix, 277-1119. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to closing; Sunday, noon to closing.
If Family Feud surveyed 100 people with the question, "Name something associated with Germany," I suspect the top half-dozen answers would be:
6. dead philosophers
Food, I imagine, would finish far down the list, probably somewhere between "overweight sopranos" and "Kaiser Wilhelm II."
The Valley's crowded ethnic-restaurant market doesn't seem to leave much room for German fare, either. But the local network of Midwestern transplants and snowbirds keeps a surprising number of German restaurants knee-deep in schnitzel.
Felsen Haus has been around since 1976, 17 restaurant years, or about a century in human terms. Its fake-wood-paneled walls are lined with posters of Germany so gorgeous that your first instinct is not to eat, but to call up Lufthansa.
Beer is the principal decorative motif. Display cases show off beer steins and beer bottles. Scores of beer coasters are tacked along the wall.
There's a small dance floor, where couples dipped and twirled to live organ music on a recent Friday night. Everything the organist played--from German drinking songs to "I Love How You Love Me"--had an oompah-pah touch.
The crowd was intriguing, hardly what I expected. Sure, there were the silver-haired folks, who sang along to German tunes and said things like, "It's 8:30 already, how did it get to be so late?" But there were also a longhaired, tattooed couple and families with well-behaved kids.
The German food here is not going to please vegetable lovers or the appetite-impaired. Portions are huge, and the only green, leafy thing you're likely to see is a potted plant.
We started off with rollmops, marinated herring buried under a pile of onions. The dish has a sharp, vinegary taste which may not suit everyone, but I'm a fan. Be sure your whole party samples them, or else you'll be the only one smelling like a herring for the next 12 hours or so. You can mop the juices up with bland German rye bread, not nearly as good as I hoped it would be.
Entrees come with soup or salad, and Felsen Haus doesn't treat this as a throwaway course. The cream of cauliflower soup is rich and smooth, perked up with bits of smoked pork.
The salad is particularly inviting. Instead of iceberg lettuce and tough winter tomatoes, you get a plateful of homemade German potato salad, crunchy cabbage and a scoopful of marinated carrots and squash.
All of Felsen Haus' main dishes, with one fish exception, feature beef or pork. "Eat slow," the friendly waitress counseled when she brought our platters. That seemed like good advice, since she brought enough food to feed a panzer division.
The combination plate provides a lusty variety of meat. Best are the two sausages, brought in from Schreiner's Fine Sausage shop. Knackwurst is a juicy, meaty, full-flavored, all-beef sausage. The white-veal bratwurst has a subtler taste, but it's delightfully seasoned.
The parade of flesh continues with sauerbraten, long-marinated, long-simmered slices of pot roast. The version here is tender enough, but a bit on the bland side. I preferred the Wiener schnitzel. Felsen Haus starts with a substantial pork cutlet, not veal, and then breads and pan-fries it. It's not the world's moistest cut of meat, but the crispy golden breading overcomes any shortcomings. We also managed to make a few dents in the platter of Fleisch roulade, a popular specialty made from thin strips of flank steak. The meat's spread out, coated with a layer of bacon, onions and pickles, then rolled up in the shape of a cylinder. It was a bit saltier than I like, but the dish sports a pleasing and unusual blend of flavors. The entrees come with competent, if undistinguished, side dishes. Bits of ham and caraway seeds breathe life into the sauerkraut. The red cabbage has an appropriately tart tang. Egg noodles are a decent commercial brand, but the mashed potatoes seem suspiciously smooth and light. It will set you back a few bucks, but opting for the homemade specialty side dishes is the right culinary move. The heavy potato dumpling is thick and wonderful, displacing about the same amount of liquid as the Queen Elizabeth II. Sp„tzle, tiny egg and flour dumplings, are a treat. And the crisp, starchy potato pancake is just about as good as Grandma used to make. As we took our last forkfuls, the waitresses suddenly began snatching up all the restaurant's table candles and salt shakers. "What's going on?" we inquired.
In a few seconds, we had our answer. A trolley full of partying ASU students invaded Felsen Haus--M.B.A. candidates, judging from their dressed-to-kill outfits--to continue their round of evening bar-hopping. The sight couldn't have been more incongruous had a battalion of Khmer Rouge spilled off the trolley. The dancing couples sat down. The organist, adapting as best he could to the students' musical tastes, launched into a sizzling rendition of that heavy-metal classic, "Guantanamera." The waitresses rolled their eyes and poured. A dancing conga line snaked through the restaurant. Felsen Haus' blend of corny entertainment and heavy cooking won't appeal to everybody. But if you get a sudden urge for something German, it beats an evening cuddled up with Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. And it's definitely more filling.
German Corner, 4900 East Indian School, Phoenix, 840-7838. Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, noon to 9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, noon to closing; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
German Corner looks less like a Bavarian rathskeller than a Teutonic Alpine lodge. It's woodsy and airy, with a few touches of stone. A giant dance floor, used for weekend waltzing and polkas, dominates the main dining room. A back room furnishes comfortable booths and eye-pleasing paintings of German mountain scenes. On this Thursday night, the strains of live German accordion music spilled out of the crowded bar back to our booth.
After a bit of a wait, our waitress trotted over with nondescript rye bread and a menu. I looked it over, futilely searching for the appetizers. In an accent as reassuringly thick as Brnnhilde's, she helpfully informed me that there weren't any.
Happily, soup or salad will edge your way into dinner. The homemade vegetable soup has an interesting, offbeat flair. Heavily infused with the salty zip of smoked pork, it comes stocked with potatoes and capers, a gutsy blend with a compelling taste.
The salad, too, strays from the usual path. It's mostly cucumber, with bits of cabbage in a creamy dressing. It's not German Corner's fault that cucumber is one of two foods I cannot abide. (The other is beets.) I'd give the salad high marks on technical merit and artistic originality, anyway.
The dozen main dishes here are all either beef or pork, and nine of them cost less than $10. But the portions generally lack Germanic size and heft.
Schweinefilet auf Schw„bische Art is a house specialty, lovely medallions of pork in a mushroom gravy. No problem with the lean, butter-soft meat or the thick gravy, but the shovelful of canned mushrooms is an off-putting sight, and no boon to taste. Schweinebraten, slices of extremely tender pork loin roast, is a clear winner. It comes in a thin, unadorned brown sauce that doesn't overpower the meat. Less can be more in the kitchen, as well as in architecture.
Sausage lovers and bargain hunters should agree on fleischk„se. It's baked sausage loaf, a huge, round slice thick enough to serve as a seat cushion. It comes topped by a mound of crispy fried onions. At $6.25, you'll be full long before you're tapped out.
The waitress mistakenly brought out sauerbraten instead of beef roulade, and like good soldiers, we didn't complain. Maybe we should have. Once again, the meat itself was quite good, but goopy brown gravy made it quite a struggle to enjoy.
Unlike Felsen Haus, German Corner doesn't require you to fork over extra dough for the good side dishes. The thick, bready dumpling is good enough to park in Mom's chicken soup. Red cabbage will make you pucker, but with pleasure, not agony. Sp„tzle has a light, doughy touch. And the heavy scent of smoked pork punches up the pungent sauerkraut. As we set our cutlery down, we began a wait for the waitress to reappear. I didn't time it, but it approximated the interval between the First and Second World Wars. It's hard to believe the same folk who introduced the word "blitzkrieg" to the language could run a restaurant where service is best measured with a sundial.
The one dessert we tried, though, was just about worth the wait. The homemade apple strudel is made from scratch, including the flaky pastry dough. Big chunks of hot apple, raisins and almonds don't compete for your attention; they command it.
Despite its folksy charm and reasonable prices, the 2-year-old German Corner still needs to fine-tune its dishes and service before I form any lasting alliance. But at least we seem to have mutual interests.
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