This Saturday, September 22, at noon sharp local time, the lord mayor of Munich, clad in lederhosen, will lead a procession and tap the first keg of Oktoberfest beer, kicking off a 12-hour-per-day, 16-day-long party that will end on October 7 with 6 million visitors having passed though its tents.
Although there's a lag for Oktoberfest celebrations here in the States — our big one at the American-German Club in Lantana starts October 12 — your cravings for bratwurst and sour-salty sauerkraut should already be setting in. You are jonesin' for the polka, the lederhosen, and the delightful aroma of beer that will rise from your clothes after imbibing several pints of German pilsner.
So maybe you head for the Fritz & Franz Bierhaus along East Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and order the Tiroler Speck, a Deutsche-style prosciutto that employs pork shoulder rather than leg and is delivered with a generous board of thick-cut charcuterie.
It's accompanied by pickled cucumber, tomato slices, parsley leaves, Liptauer (a cottage-cream cheese emulsion infused with paprika), and seemingly out-of-place hot peppers. Some slices have unpleasant fatty bits that need to be cut away, yet each one has the salty richness of fine Italian ham and the smokiness you might find in a country version.
When we visited recently, polka music was playing in the background and our server, with a closely shaved head and clad in lederhosen, set down the appetizer and in a very matter-of-fact way stated, "Zis is ze bomb."
In Germany, Oktoberfest starts in September. And if the people who invented the holiday more than 200 years ago don't wait for October, why should you? The festival takes place in Bavaria, attracting millions of revelers. Its dates have varied over the years, perhaps most notably in 1994, when the final day was scheduled to coincide with German Reunification Day, celebrating the end of the Cold War.
South Florida isn't well-known for its German expat community, and there isn't an endless selection of Bavarian-style eateries to pick from here. Fort Lauderdale's Fritz & Franz is an offshoot of the Coral Gables restaurant that has been open for more than a decade just off Miracle Mile. Chef and owner Harald Neuweg's Fort Lauderdale outpost opened in September 2011. The recipes are a combination of those he learned while working in Austria and family secrets, like the one for rich yet vinegary potato salad, which came from his mother.
Among the first things you see upon entering are oak cabinets that line the walls. They make the place feel as though you were sitting in someone's home kitchen. Etched glass separates a main dining room from another section, where a small group gathers each Wednesday to play poker. The walls are lined with brewery-branded mirrors that sport blond, smiling, big-breasted beer maidens. The menu is a cross section of everything you'd expect in Bavarian fare.
Pretzels seem a mandatory opener and pair well with half liters of beer. Two of them arrive at the table hot from the oven and with a perfect amount of salt. These are better than the hotbox version you might find at a movie theater or fair but look similar. Despite the hope for the thinner, deeper brown mustard that usually accompanies a traditional German pretzel, the house-made version, amped up with bits of mustard grain and horseradish, and more Liptauer, for an extra $2, makes them much more than just something to soak up the inevitable waves of beer.
And of course, suds are critical to a German meal. On tap here are four varieties of beer, each from a different German brewery: Warsteiner, Krombacher, Radeberger, and König Ludwig. They come in one of four sizes, from a diminutive third of a liter for $4 to $5.25 all the way up to the two-liter "Das Boot" for up to $30. The largest option requires a credit card and driver's license as a deposit, in case you decide after drinking your way through it to take the rain-boot-shaped glass as a souvenir. The list also includes about two dozen bottled options that range from an easy-drinking Bischoff Hefe Weizen (a Bavarian wheat beer) to malty, dark, and sweet doppelbocks.
Servers are happy to explain the unfamiliar varieties, comparing their flavors to those of better-known brands. One tasting led to the Radeberger Pilsner, which looks similar enough to your standard canned beer but has the notable bitterness of hops without being too overpowering or heavy.
Then come the bratwurst and sausage, the irreplaceable third leg of any German eating experience. The ones with veal were by far the best. The ground sea soned meat boasts the richness of a pork sausage without the saltiness. They're available as a pair served with sauerkraut and roasted potatoes or as one of three sausages in the sampler platter, the Wurst Teller. The sampler brings three short, fat links atop a heap of sauerkraut with a choice of roasted potatoes or potato salad. Knockwurst delivered a dense yet well-seasoned mixture of beef, pork, and garlic. The smoked sausage was flavorful but devoid of any of the promised smokiness.
Sausages proved to be the highlight of the entrées, although the menu features several dishes with meat cooked and served closer to its natural form. The Hühnershnitzel — a chicken breast pounded thin, breaded, and fried — includes a large portion of chicken that's both crispy and juicy but lacks seasoning. At $18, it's also one of the higher-priced dishes on the menu.
On a Wednesday-night visit, we were disappointed to find that the roasted pork shank special was sold out. On a future visit, we will heed the advice of both the staff and the fliers on every table to reserve one ahead of time.
The restaurant offers several other pieces of advice, like the Ten Commandments of the Beer House, posted in German adjacent to the front door. The highlight of those advises patrons "not to pee in the river on Friday, because on Sunday we use the water to make beer." An FC Bayern Munich scarf, representing the preferred soccer team of the house, hangs above a mirror-backed bar, letting you know whom to cheer for.
A heaping bowl of Szegediner Gulasch comes with a generous helping of fork-tender pork shoulder in a thick, brown gravy with paprika, onions, garlic, and red wine. The stew is served atop more sauerkraut while a dollop of sour cream adds a further touch of richness. The goulash, likely due to the combination of sauerkraut, pork, and a rich sauce, was a bit salty but not so much as to render it inedible.
The Salatschüssel — a combination of German potato, cabbage, cucumber, and carrot salads — is a mandatory addition to any meal here, especially those that don't include the potato salad. Boiled potatoes are peeled and mixed with olive oil, vinegar, salt onions, and scallions to create a salad that is filling without the overwhelming richness of those built around mayonnaise. Cabbage and cucumber salads offer fresh, crisp vegetables with a vinegary punch that's a welcome counterbalance to the rich sausages and stews. On one visit, our server forgot to put our order for spätzle, a noodle salad with cheese and browned onions, but quickly realized they were missing and brought a small bowl of the light, classic side dish to our table.
Only one of two visits included a lederhosened waiter and background polka music, but service was always attentive and helpful in explaining the less common dishes. Fritz & Franz strikes a fine balance between offering visitors an "authentic" German dining experience and being a place you could, with a serious workout regime, visit regularly.
We were one of only a couple of filled tables at each visit. Yet Neuweg, who's long run the Oktoberfest in Coral Gables near the original location, said he'll be overseeing Fort Lauderdale's Oktoberfest, which will run September 28 to 30 on Las Olas Boulevard.
Fritz & Franz is the kind of place that's best for a big group of people with big appetites. There's surely no reason to wait for October to visit for a cold beer and a hot plate of brats.