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The food gives off the same homey vibes. Old Vienna also serves potato pancakes ($5.95), but its version has a lovely pan-fried exterior that tastes of potato accented by plenty of onions and butter. You'll also find chicken wings marinated in beer ($7.95) and flaky spinach strudel warmed by creamy mushroom sauce ($6.95). I don't usually fawn over salads, but the house version that comes before your entrées at Old Vienna is outstanding. It's livened by a tart potato vinaigrette infused with dill and studded with green beans and sweet corn. I loved the dressing so much, I used the fluffy house-made pumpernickel bread to swipe up every last bit.
Throughout our meal, Old Vienna's chef, Fritz, kept popping out from the kitchen to take sips of beer from a tall mug and walk through the dining room to talk to customers. Maybe it was his thick accent and friendly demeanor, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed a piece of schnitzel more than his. The thin cutlets of chicken, pork, or veal have the most immaculately crisp bread-crumb crust, which gives way to a juicy interior so soft, you can cut it with a fork. The piece I had came on a big Bavarian platter ($19.95) along with a link of bratwurst, a thin-cut pork chop peppered with fennel seed, and a juicy piece of roasted pork covered in gravy. On the side: warm potato salad and some of the finest sweet red cabbage I've ever tried. We even loved a less conventional dish of tilapia with lemon cream sauce ($11.95), which came with a side of pitch-perfect spaetzle that was tough to stop eating even when we were too full to continue.
Two other German restaurants that mesh Old Heidelberg's lively crowd with Old Vienna's comforting food are Checkers Old Munchen (2209 E. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach) and the Ambry (3016 E. Commercial Blvd., Fort Lauderdale). Checkers (reviewed in our September 7 issue) is a fun little restaurant that packs up full, especially during its Friday-night beer tastings. For under $20, customers can sample eight or more great German brews, plus feast on an unlimited buffet with tasty iterations of German bar food like liverwurst, knockwurst, and spaetzle sautéed with onions, mushrooms, and leberkase (a veal dish that's like a cross between a hot dog and traditional meat loaf). By the end of a night at Checkers, folks are usually dancing by the copper-topped bar and belting out German drinking songs, mugs in hand.
But my favorite German drinking hole is the Ambry off of Bayview Drive and Commercial Boulevard. The restaurant — which from the outside looks like a medieval castle with German and American flags on the ramparts — was opened in 1981 by famed German footballer Gerd Mueller. Mueller left the business soon after, and it's been run by the Huber family ever since.
Inside, the dark, winding corridors reveal private rooms anchored by warm hearths. Up front is a bar that's covered with so much German soccer memorabilia that you'd half expect to find World Cup hero Bastian Schweinsteiger chilling there with a pint of Tucher Hefeweizen in hand. Instead, you'll find plenty of regulars, some of whom have decorative steins held behind the counter. One regular, a jovial guy named Sam, sipped Warsteiner lager from a ceramic stein with one of those cool little lids you pop up and down with your thumb.
"This is my favorite place to come in all of Fort Lauderdale," he said as he took a pull from his foamy beer. "They make some of the best prime rib around."
We didn't sample the prime rib, but we did try the Ambry's house-made sausages, including a few currywurst — a brat that's been smeared with curry-flavored ketchup (a true hangover cure if there ever was one). Ambry's bratwurst is damned addictive too ($11.95 for a platter). It's peppery and very juicy but also very soft, as if the meat inside was finely mixed into something tender and supple. Dab each piece with some spicy brown mustard that comes in a ceramic bowl and you're just about in sausage heaven.
Also great: the Ambry's famous garlic soup ($3.50), creamy and loaded with the sweet flavor of roasted garlic. A happy-hour-priced plate of schweinsbraten ($16.95) featured loads of roasted pork, a textural contrast of juicy meat and crunchy, caramelized bits coated with black pepper.
Best of all, that pig goes perfectly with a pint of spicy wheat beer from Weihenstephan, a German brewery that's been crafting beer since 1040. My advice: Skip the boot and order it by the pint ($6). It may not be as festive, but you'll save on pride in the long run.