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).