Meat. Fat. Salt. Flour. Potatoes. Cabbage. If this list doesn't make you drool, German dining probably isn't for you. If you like green things other than garnishes on your plate, traditional Teutonic food isn't likely to rise über alles among world cuisines in your estimation.
But if you (like me, alas) enjoy a chlorophyll-free diet, there are several worthwhile German eateries in the Valley. Your life may be short and sugar-filled, but you won't die hungry.
In matters gustatory, I like to live dangerously. So I recently toured three of the Valley's premier German restaurants. Accompanying me on two of these excursions were persons of German heritage -- in one case, an East German, born and bred behind the Wall -- to give me the skinny on schnitzel with noodles and make sure I didn't get taken in by substandard sauerbraten or below-average brat. Man, did I have a blast.
My favorite of the three stops was German Corner (4900 East Indian School; 602-840-7838). The unprepossessing façade of this little-heralded place, hiding in plain sight next to the canal on the cusp between Scottsdale and Phoenix, conceals a spacious, comfortable dining room decorated in the usual manner: vaguely Alpine-looking wood trim and big pictures of castles everywhere. Yet while there was a self-consciously oompah-oompah tinge to the atmosphere at some of the other places I visited, German Corner felt like the real deal, a place where German people actually hang out. Lively German conversations were going on at several of the tables nearby.
The friend who took me there is of French-German descent -- I once heard him express his pride in this heritage by glumly remarking, "I keep kicking in people's doors and then surrendering to them" -- and he guided me through the extensive menu. His wife assured me that I'd have such a great German meal I'd swear I was in Brazil.
She was right. Despite one awkward -- but hastily corrected -- glitch in our order, which I'll come to later, the feast that German Corner put in front of us was spectacular.
The meat and potatoes of German cuisine -- and "meat and potatoes" is never a more appropriate idiom than when discussing German cuisine -- are the schnitzels. This family of meat dishes consists of thinly sliced cutlets of veal or pork cooked in various sauces, batters and gravies. My friend's favorite was the jaeger schnitzel, succulent pork in a mushroom sauce that's substantial without seeming like 40-weight oil. His wife did just as well with the schweinebraten, a roasted pork loin that neither has nor requires a heavy adornment of sauce. Her entree was preceded by a creamy cucumber salad, his by a meat-dumpling soup.
Yet as princely as all of the above was, I felt like I made out the best. While no one is likely to leave German Corner hungry, diners of particularly hearty appetite won't do better than the "Taste of Germany" combination platter -- $17.95 got me a nice portion of rinderroulade, a delicious rolled beefsteak; sauerbraten, beef in a tangy brown gravy; the aforementioned schweinebraten; terrific, crunchy home fries; firm spaetzle, a flour dumpling that resembles moistened Styrofoam but tastes better; red cabbage; and a bracing sauerkraut. It's all preceded by the choice of soup or salad. Wishing to avoid anything that resembled a green vegetable, I opted for the soup.
The "Taste of Germany" also comes with dessert, a piece of very hot, very good apple strudel. My companions shared a piece of Black Forest cake with white frosting. Both desserts make worthy finales to dinners of Wagnerian scope.
The aforementioned glitch? It's a nasty one. My friend's wife ordered a glass of milk to go with her dinner. The glassful she was brought seemed contaminated -- it smelled and tasted like a zoo.
Even here, however, German Corner showed its agreeability, swiftly and apologetically removing the apparently septic milk and replacing it with a mix of orange and cranberry juice, which has since become my friend's wife's favorite beverage. Indeed, it should be said that first-rate, doting service was the norm at all three of the German restaurants I sampled.
The runner-up in my Teutonic triptych is Haus Murphy's (5819 West Glendale Avenue in Glendale; 623-939-2480), a splendid little space across from Velma Teague Library in Glendale's underrated little downtown. The incongruously un-German name is a tribute to both the importance of the name "Murphy" in Glendale history -- the restaurant is directly across the street from Murphy Park -- and to Martin Ritt's 1985 movie Murphy's Romance, starring James Garner and Sally Field. The big, handsome wooden soda fountain that dominates the small dining room was a piece of the film's set, bought at auction after shooting wrapped in Florence, Arizona.
However inauthentic the name, there can be no doubt about the authenticity of the food. The lovingly prepared fare will leave you sighing happily. Although Murphy's offers a plentiful variety of sandwiches and also a fine version of that German delicacy, the hamburger, I'd recommend the hackbraten for lunch, especially if your schedule allows for a nice, long afternoon nap. Preceded by a salad or a cup of one of the savory soups, like ham or turkey and potato, the hackbraten is a slice of fine-ground, browned beef in a blanket of heavy but subtly flavored brown gravy. On the side, along with a basket of hearty rye and pumpernickel from Karsh's Bakery, is the excellent German-style potato salad, which is nice and tangy without inducing puckers. This characterizes Haus Murphy's food in general -- though it's confident and never bland, the flavors aren't overpowering. The dishes are comfort food, to be sure, but they aren't sedatives.
The sauerbraten dinner is perhaps the exception to this rule; the sauce is more hard-hitting and exhausting than it needs to be. Much better among the evening-meal entrees was the kassler kotelett, pork chops nearly an inch thick served on a bed of sauerkraut. My companion, a fan neither of German food nor of pork in general, said they were the best chops she'd ever eaten. They're ideally lean and entirely edible except for that pesky bone. But without the bone, of course, the pig would fall over.
Where Murphy's really shines is in its homemade desserts. Along with traditional choices like the superior apple strudel and the adequate, if slightly dry, Black Forest cake, there's lighter fare more appropriate to follow such heavy dinners. The options vary from day to day, but on one occasion, I had a knockout concoction of layered cake and delicately flavored orange mousse, bathed in an orange glaze and topped with a dollop of cream. After lunch on another visit, I enjoyed a dish of rote grutze, a peculiar but refreshing mixture of raspberry gelatin and tapioca topped with whipped cream.
Easily overlooked, but not to be missed, is the outdoor beer garden behind Murphy's, which also serves as the smoking section. It's accessible through the antique shop next door.
The last stop on my tour was Felsen Haus (1008 East Camelback; 602-788-8888), the Valley's best-known German restaurant. Though I left it full and happy, it definitely came in third to German Corner and Murphy's.
The first problem was the basket of white rolls that arrived prior to ordering. Germans are notoriously fussy about their bread, so it's perplexing that Felsen Haus would fob us off with what tasted like something from the day-old rack at Safeway.
Things looked up considerably, however, where salad is concerned. The salad plate at Felsen Haus beats the competition. It's a triple threat, combining creamy cucumbers, unusually mild coleslaw and German potato salad, which we opted to have served warm. One of my companions thought the potatoes were mushy; another agreed but said she liked it that way because it gave them a nice marinated flavor.
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The entrees were variable. The bratwurst was proclaimed the best that one of our party, a former Army wife, had ever had outside Germany, and she said the same about the sauerkraut. The sauerbraten on my "Schlacte Platte" (combination plate) was a treat, lighter and better than that at Murphy's. The fat, superbly juicy sausages were as good as any I've ever had.
On the downside, the fleischrouladen -- flank steak wrapped around bacon -- was forgettable, as was the side of bland, bland, bland egg noodles covered in a brown sauce that somehow succeeded in making them more bland. The kassler ripchen pork loin was as fatty and dreary as Murphy's kassler kotelett was lean and lively.
Felsen Haus' desserts were way off the night of our visit. Maybe the phyllo dough in apple strudel is supposed to be paper thin, but it shouldn't taste like paper. And the Black Forest cake tasted like something left over from one of Mad Ludwig's banquets back in dear old Bavaria.
There was an alternative to dessert, however; Felsen Haus serves a lovely, deceptively smooth apple liqueur, made on the premises from a secret recipe. If you need something sweet after dinner, that's the way to go.