By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Ordering beer in a giant boot is like entering into an unspoken bet. In which you are gambling your pride. Finish a whole one and you'll be the toast of your colleagues. Fail and you'll face ceaseless ribbing, slights against your manhood, and unparalleled shame.
There was no better example of this than watching two guys in soccer jerseys drink from a pair of two-liter boots at Old Heidelberg German Restaurant (900 State Road 84, Fort Lauderdale). Each piece of faux footwear looked like a translucent version of a 62-hole Doc Marten's boot, only with a keg's worth of foamy lager sloshing around inside. Guy Number One had taken to his like a champ, draining the massive vessel to the ankle in mere minutes. But Guy Number Two wasn't faring as well. Thirty minutes into the contest, he was lagging, hard. By the time he reached the midcalf mark, his blustery friend was onto his second boot, and his entire entourage was calling him the kind of names you wouldn't repeat in front of your hausfrau.
Oktoberfest, the German "holiday" when people guzzle beer with gusto, has officially arrived. Though the real Oktoberfest is held annually in Munich, Germany, from late September to early October, the American version of the festival seems to last as long as there's beer in the kegs and people to drink it. Thankfully, there are plenty of German eateries scattered across South Florida where you can partake in the festivities while supping on authentic food with names like schweinsbraten (roasted pork) and spanferkel (suckling pig).
Old Heidelberg off of State Road 84 is one of the oldest and best-known of the bunch. The chalet-themed restaurant has been open since 1991 and sports an adjacent deli where the original owners, a German couple named Dieter Doerrenberg and Heidi Brueggeman, make sausages, schnitzel, and assorted German baked goods daily.
The weekend I showed up, Oktoberfest at Old Heidelberg was already in full swing. The festive-looking restaurant — which Doerrenberg and Brueggeman sold in 2007 — was packed with revelers for live music and dancing courtesy of the Ukrainian Dancers of Miami. When I walked in through the long, pine-covered foyer, the traditionally garbed dance troupe was already doing routines like "the dance of the potato pancakes" right in the center of the cavernous dining room.
The troupe's leader, a woman with a bright-white corset and a headpiece flowing with long, colorful ribbons, suggested the dance was an ode to Old Heidelberg's potato pancakes, which she called the best around. My friend and I decided to take her cue and snag an order of those pancakes ($5.95) to go along with our Spaten Oktoberfest beers. Though the dance was fun to watch, I can't say I agreed about the food: Old Heidelberg's pancakes were nicely fried but bland inside. Some very funky-tasting sour cream I smeared on top didn't improve the flavor much.
Old Heidelberg's menu is almost as big as the restaurant itself. There's plenty of meaty German fare like schnitzel and duck, plus a variety of roasted pork and beef dishes ladled with rich sauces. You'll also find more European-inspired dishes, like steaks, seafood, and chicken cordon bleu. The quality is hit or miss. As we drank beer and watched the dancers, I sampled a cup of the house potato soup ($4.25, or free with an entrée). It was as hearty as a stew: chunky, flavorful, and loaded with bits of aromatic vegetables and crumbled sausage. A platter of finger-sized sausages made at the deli next door included fatty knockwurst and bratwurst, plus a rich and garlicky link of kielbasa ($8.95). The sausages were great smeared with mustard and sauerkraut, but the warm potato salad served with them was musty, as if it had been kept too long.
I also didn't care for the paprika rahm schnitzel ($19.95) a friend and I had ordered. The breaded, pan-fried chicken was dry and overly tough for such a thin piece of meat. Also, the sauce of roasted onions and peppers on top tasted more like an Italian tomato sauce than the spicy sour cream sauce that was advertised, and the spaetzle that came with it — a German dumpling that's usually pan-fried after being boiled — was too bland and thick, like chewy spaghetti. Better was an order of beef rouladen ($19.95) we shared — pieces of thin beef rolled around a bacon stuffing and roasted until tender.
If I were looking to drink from giant boots or watch people do the chicken dance to accordion music, I'd definitely head back to Old Heidelberg. But for home cooking that tastes authentic (like my best friend's German mother served us as kids), I'd seek out Old Vienna in Coral Springs (4611 N. University Drive). The tiny restaurant has a quarter of the tables Old Heidelberg boasts but has been around just as long (it opened in 1990).
Step into Old Vienna and you'll really feel like you've entered someone's home. The entrance is walled in by wooden dividers and a hostess stand covered in grandmotherly floral patterns. Inside are antique-looking wooden booths with pillow-cushion seats and walls painted to look like a crumbling building revealing exposed brick. At the far end of the room is the bar, replete with a wooden awning that's decorated to look like an Alpine village at Christmas.
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.