Zur Kate, 4815 East Main, Mesa, 830-4244. Summer Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
When it comes to fine dining, serious gastronomes are about as likely to book a tour of central Europe as Sierra Club members are to organize a hiking trip around Chernobyl.
Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have many touristic lures, but few consider gourmet cuisine among them. The food's not nearly as sophisticated as that of their French and Italian neighbors. And it lacks the robust flair that defines Spanish or Greek cooking.
On the other hand, this kind of Eurocentric perspective may be skewing our culinary judgments. At least, that's my hunch after visiting Zur Kate, which features German specialties, and Golden Prague Restaurant, which offers Czechoslovakian and Polish dishes. Measuring their fare against the rest of the continent's--definitely a losing proposition--doesn't seem quite apt. How can you compare, say, mashed potatoes with risotto, wurst with tournedos or schnitzel with paella? A more helpful way to assess central European fare might be to think of it as hearty, unpretentious ethnic eats. And cheap. At Zur Kate and Golden Prague, almost nothing goes for more than ten bucks, and we're talking full meals. Their competition isn't Vincent's, Christopher's or Marquesa. It's your neighborhood Mexican or Chinese restaurant. From this ethnic perspective, Zur Kate is an absolute delight. It's run by German restaurateurs who've kept it flourishing for almost 11 years. A five-second glance around the place provides enough ethnic clues for even Inspector Clouseau. Zur Kate is crammed with Deutschland memorabilia: shelves of beer steins, pictures of Bavarian castles, souvenir plates, Alpine scenes, a German flag. On weekend evenings, an accordion-and-banjo duo from Milwaukee rolls out the polkas. And a German-language plaque, loosely translated, advises patrons, "There's no beer in Heaven, so drink it here." But along with these obvious signs, Zur Kate has something more: a genuine feel of gemtlichkeit, a homey congeniality and comfort that no interior designer can manufacture. German draft beer on tap contributes to that feeling. So does the patient and friendly waitress, whose delightful accent, thick as a Westphalian ham, adds to the charm. Meals start off with a trip to the soup-and-salad bar. Diners are allowed only one trip, but that's not a problem. Anyone familiar with this sort of food knows that you're no more likely to leave a German restaurant hungry than you are to leave a Las Vegas casino rich. The cabbage soup, seasoned with sausage, has real ethnic punch. It certainly looks better than the salad-bar veggies parked alongside. But looks can be deceiving, and, in this case, they are. Those veggies--beets, green beans, cauliflower, squash--have been soaking in a hard-hitting marinade. Combined with some dense, homemade German rye, they're a potent way to edge into dinner. The menu covers traditional German territory, heavy on wursts and schnitzels. Zur Kate is not the place where you want to bring observant Jewish or Muslim friends--almost everything here is fashioned from pork. Sauerbraten is one of the few items that isn't. It's a couple of thin slices of marinated roast beef in a thick gravy. At $9.50, it's the most expensive dinner option. The meat is tasty, but not as aromatic or as substantial as the swinish offerings.
For example, take the zwiebel rippchen. It's a fragrantly smoked pork chop topped with fried onions. As is true with almost everything here, there's nothing subtle about the flavor.
That same oomph shows up in the leberkase. The menu calls it Bavarian meat loaf--a thin slice of finely ground ham and pork. This dish probably bears no resemblance, in either taste or appearance, to what your mother used to make, unless she came from Bavaria.
Sahne schnitzel is another way to eat high on the hog. It's a lightly breaded pork cutlet fashioned with creamy gravy. This is pure comfort food. So are the wursts. Zur Kate makes its own bratwurst, and brings in other varieties from the German Sausage Company. Washed down with beer, the coarse-ground brat and mild veal and pork weisswurst inspire pat-your-belly satisfaction. I adored the side dishes here--they give the platters a wonderful boost. The potato dumpling had the proper heft and weight; the crunchy home fries come sizzling right off the skillet; the potato salad is properly tart; the pungent sauerkraut is essential to full enjoyment of wurst; zippy red cabbage perks up schnitzels; and the sp„tzle--doughy, homemade noodles--furnishes a lip-smacking blend of taste and texture.
The three homemade desserts are in the same class. The Black Forest cake comes stuffed with cherries. A real strudel crust encases the warm apple strudel. And the dense, creamy cheesecake is simply one of the best I've had in the Valley. For some inexplicable reason, the same strip mall that houses Zur Kate is also home to another excellent German restaurant, Bavarian Point. If you're going to drive to the far reaches of Mesa for German food (and, to my mind, these are the two best German restaurants in the Valley), and you're unsure of which one to patronize, let me clue you in to some of the differences. Bavarian Point is much larger than Zur Kate, and without the cozy, rathskeller atmosphere. The food there is more sophisticated, and a little pricier. There's also a bit more of it, though that's like saying Phoenix is a bit sunnier than Tucson.
Either way, don't wear your tightest pants. After a German meal, you're going to need the Lebensraum. Golden Prague Restaurant, 9440 West Peoria Avenue, Peoria, 878-0557. Summer Hours: Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3 to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
After Zur Kate, Golden Prague was a definite letdown. The atmosphere and cooking seemed a lot more Middle American than middle European.
Given its location, maybe that shouldn't have been too much of a surprise. It's out near Sun City, where people lunch at 11 a.m., dine at 4:30 p.m. and eat the next day's breakfast before going to bed.
So Golden Prague was out of the Friday-night fruit-dumpling special by the time I arrived at 6:30 p.m. And even on weekends, the kitchen closes by 8 p.m., a time when management probably assumes most neighborhood customers are settling in to begin their principal evening activity, slumbering in front of the television. The room gives little indication of the cuisine's presumed ethnic character. Big-band music spills softly from the sound system. White-lace window curtains, faux-wood paneling and lots of artificial greenery don't furnish much old-country atmosphere.
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Neither does much of the food. My travels suggest that breaded zucchini, breaded mushrooms, chicken nuggets, French fries and onion rings aren't your typical central European appetizer munchies.
Piroghi and stuffed cabbage are, but the versions here create little excitement. Four assorted piroghi--filled with sauerkraut, meat, potato and cheese--seemed pretty drab. The stuffed cabbage couldn't compare to the kind I've had in the kitchen of eastern European grandmothers. The puddle of thin tomato sauce was particularly unappealing. One starter, with more ethnic character than the average Sun City resident can presumably handle, does stand out. That's the czarnina, a soup that Campbell's won't be canning anytime soon. When I ordered it, the waitress turned away and puckered, as if she'd just bit into a thousand lemons. No way could she be convinced that this soup is good food. I guess that's because czarnina is ethnic fare with a vengeance: It's made from duck blood, and studded with raisins, prunes and noodles. For the record, it's quite sweet, and tasty in a quirky way.
Main dishes are cheap, but that's their most memorable aspect. The one-half roast duck was the best item I sampled. It managed to be moist without being greasy, and the skin had the right crispy crunch. But this must have been a mutant fowl. That's because this is the first half-duck I ever ordered that came with two legs. If it actually were a quadruped, the kitchen would have gotten a lot more mileage out of it by sending it to Ripley's Believe It or Not. Roast loin of pork--veprova"--is advertised on the menu as the "Czechoslovak national dish." I hope not, because if it is, the national dish consists of four dry, undistinguished pork medallions. Without the pitcher of gravy to pour over them, chewing would have been a chore. The wiener schnitzel and the Moravian beef goulash are competently prepared, but they're nothing special in the flavor department. Each features tender meat, but neither sparks any taste explosions. The side dishes don't provide much support. The odd dumpling--it looked liked a piece of old bread--was awful: It had a thick, grainy texture, and was tasteless, to boot. Mashed potatoes, sweet-and-sour cabbage, and sauerkraut weren't much more inspired. And if the desserts here are any indication, central Europeans don't have much of a sweet tooth. The ice cream and sherbet are clearly designed for the Sun City folks on their last teeth. According to the waitress, the kolacky--a Polish sweet roll--is homemade. Well, so is the pumpkin pie my wife bakes every Thanksgiving. Do not confuse "homemade" with "high quality." Is Golden Prague worth a trek all the way out by Sun City? Perhaps a decade ago, when it opened, it might have provided some offbeat amusement in a town that thought tacos and veal parmigiana genuine ethnic-food experiences. But a lot has happened in ten years. Like the homeland itself, Golden Prague has been left in the dust.