By Shannon Oelrich
Photography by Jody Horton and Chef Kee
Here in Central Texas, German food often appears as heavy fare served at a biergarten or wurstfest. Bold brats, piquant kraut, hearty jäger schnitzel and spiced sausage on a stick are all delicious, no doubt, but saying they’re representative of German cuisine is like saying Tex-Mex is representative of traditional Mexican food. While tacos and enchiladas are heavenly, most Texans know that the cuisines of Mexico are as varied as its landscape and change by region. Most Texans, however, don’t know that the same applies to German cuisine.
“Some people think of the Hofbrauhaus as German food, but in Germany that is not our typical cuisine,” says Chef Wolfgang Murber of Fabi + Rosi. Chef Murber’s restaurant offers pan-European cuisine, reflecting his upbringing in Germany and training in French cooking. “We have vast lands, rivers and two oceans [the North Sea and the Baltic Sea], allowing a perfect climate to raise veggies, poultry, game and as many different ways of cooking them as there are regions.”
Chef Murber, who owns the elegantly chic restaurant with his wife, Cassie, a native Austinite, is part of a local resurgence of Old World food with a fresh twist. Several German immigrants, and a couple of unlikely Germanophiles, have opened local eateries and are intent on educating Central Texans about the delights of Deutschland.
Marisela and Chad Mitchley went to Germany on their honeymoon and fell in love with the food and culture. Marisela is a Texan with Mexican-American roots and Chad is a Midwesterner, but they decided it was their mission to bring real German (specifically Bavarian) food to this area. The young couple opened Ilsa’s Kitchen in Spicewood last December, with the help of Marisela’s parents. It’s an enormous space, with room out back for a sprawling biergarten.
They’ve found customers to be responsive and curious, but there’s a learning curve to overcome. “People think that German food is just one thing, but it’s not,” says Marisela. “Just like French food is a way of cooking, German food is also like that. The cuisine varies from region to region, but people think they know German food because they’ve had a schnitzel, and that’s very confining.”
One Deutschlander who’s not willing to be confined in any way is Chef Achim Thiemermann, who prefers the moniker Chef Keem. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and an Alpine hat, Chef Keem has been thoroughly South-Austinized. He’s into cooking and music, and heavily into the Internet. On his various websites, you’ll find jokes, recipes, videos and opinions about everything from small-business ownership to what happens after you die.
Chef Keem helped the Mitchleys develop the recipes for Ilsa’s Kitchen before leaving to follow his dream of opening a German eatery in Austin proper, The Bavarian Bistro. Its first incarnation is in a trailer at Third and Congress, though he has plans for a restaurant without wheels. The Bavarian Bistro serves the German food that Texans are familiar with, made with fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. “German cuisine, like any other cuisine, is good food prepared well,” says Keem. The bistro’s bread comes from Sweetish Hill Bakery, and the drinks are from SESA Teas, a farmers market favorite.
The desire to source locally is a common thread among these restaurateurs. Chef Murber gets his meats from Broken Arrow Ranch and Countryside Farm, and has a garden and chickens to supply eggs. “I am pleased to be in Austin,” says Murber, “a town that has a Slow Food movement, farmers and ranchers nearby who can help provide great products, self-grown and sustainably produced.”
Marisela Mitchley is also committed to local vendors. “Our breads come from New World Bakery in Kyle,” she says. “Our lettuce comes from Amador Farms in Dripping Springs; we have our maultaschen [German ravioli] filled at Pasta & Co. on Kerbey Lane and our sausage comes from Smokey Denmark’s on the east side.”
In Germany, fresh, local food has long been the norm. “Growing up, you went to the fresh-air market, or to the baker or butcher for what you needed that day, although there’s certainly lots of supermarket shopping now,” remembers Inga Bowyer, president of GermanDeli.com, an online imported-food store based in Texas. “We had a tiny little refrigerator for seven of us because my mother didn’t really have to store stuff.”
For Anni Zovek and her sister, Piroska Althauser, freshness is everything. The sisters opened European Bistro in Pflugerville eight years ago and are still educating local palates today. “If you go to my walk-in, everything’s fresh,” says Zovek. “We buy from local farms, and we don’t overbuy. We shop each week, and we never freeze foods. We make our own bread, then we grind that bread to make breadcrumbs for our recipes. It may not be economical, but we know what we need.”
Most of Zovek’s family fled Hungary in the wake of the 1956 revolution. Her parents and grandparents had run restaurants in their native land, and she and her sister are passionate about continuing that tradition here. The bistro’s elegant setting—a 110-year-old former mercantile building on Main Street—certainly evokes an Old World feel. But they are frustrated when customers walk in with preconceived notions. “People look at the menu and say, ‘I’ll be back in winter because your food is heavy,’” says Zovek. “It’s not true! Our food is light and fresh. For instance, in Texas you mostly find pork used for schnitzels, but they are traditionally veal. We use veal, which is lighter than pork, and we don’t even pound the meat until it is ordered.”
Just this year, Pflugerville welcomed the Nuernberg Brauhaus. Silke Dye and her husband, Jeremiah, met in Germany when Jeremiah was in the U.S. military. Silke’s been in the United States for 14 years, but her mother, Sonja Vogt, recently emigrated from Germany, where she owned two restaurants. Vogt convinced her daughter and son-in-law that the small German-heritage town was the perfect place to open a casual dining room with favorites from Nuernberg. “German cooking is regional cooking,” says Silke. “When people come in who were stationed in one part of Germany, they may ask, ‘Why isn’t there any bacon in the potato salad?’ The potato salad we serve is specific to our region. There’s not one kind of German potato salad.”
Since the second week of business the Brauhaus has had regular customers, locals who even come armed with their own beer steins to sit at the small bar and cheer on German soccer teams. People are comfortable there, happy to have good food and good beer in their neighborhood, and the proprietors are committed to keeping it that way. “German food is comfort food, but it’s also good, simple food,” says Silke. She drops by the Pflugerville Farmers’ Market on Tuesday afternoons to see what’s fresh, and runs specials each week that may be seasonal or may be a “Sunday” dish (one that takes longer to prepare, like sauerbraten). When asked about future plans for the small restaurant, Silke looks around and says, “We’d like to stay here for a while.”
Texas’s German heritage is one of the reasons even recent immigrants feel immediately comfortable here. The influence of German settlers from the 1800s, fused with other cultural influences and that indefinable Texas spirit, has made Central Texas, and specifically the Hill Country, what it is today. Dance halls, beer brewing, sausage making, barbecue—iconic places like Gruene Hall and Scholz Garten—are what they are because of this confluence. And while that may result in such Bubba-Bavarian specialties as Scholz Schnitzel—a Wiener schnitzel topped with queso—it also feeds that Lone Star mystique. Just don’t mistake it for German cuisine.
• The World Famous German Walburg Restaurant in Walburg is celebrating Oktoberfest throughout October, with music every Friday and Saturday night and an outdoor buffet (walburgrestaurant.com).
• 30th Anniversary Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg is Friday through Sunday, October 1–3, on the Marktplatz in downtown Fredericksburg (oktoberfestinfbg.com).
• The German-Texan Heritage Society’s annual Oktoberfest is Saturday, October 16, 12 noon–6 p.m. at the German Free School in downtown Austin (germantexans.org).
• The first Pflugerville GermanFest is Sunday, October 24, noon–5 p.m. at Pfluger Hall (201 E. Pecan), sponsored by Heritage House Museum Partners (cityofpflugerville.com).
• Wurstfest in New Braunfels celebrates its 50th anniversary this year from October 29 to November 7 (wurstfest.com).
RecipesBeet Salad with Horseradish Vinaigrette, Adapted from Spoonfuls of Germany by Nadia Hassani, published by Hippocrene Books, Inc.
Blue Mussels Steamed in Wine, From Spoonfuls of Germany by Nadia Hassani
Hornberger Jäger-Topf (Castle Hornberg Hunter Stew) with Spätzle, Courtesy of Chef Wolfgang Murber, Fabi + Rosi
German Potato Salad with Cucumbers , Courtesy of Catherine Prystup
German Bohemian Sauerkraut, Courtesy of Chef Keem, Bavarian Bistro
Apfelbettelmann (Apple-Pumpernickel Betty), Adapted from Spoonfuls of Germany by Nadia Hassani, published by Hippocrene Books, Inc. Goulash Soup, Courtesy of Ruth Oelrich
German Wine Primer
German wine started being taken seriously in the 1990s, when wine aficionados realized there was more to it than Blue Nun. Today, riesling is considered one of the finest food-pairing wines in the world. While enjoying the wine, imbibers may have asked, What food was this made to go with? For many, the wine has been the doorway to the cuisine.
“Because most of the vineyards in Germany are on steep slopes, mechanization is almost impossible, so it is mainly small grape growers and winemakers making the wines,” says Sam Hovland, wine buyer for East End Wines. “Their system of labeling ripeness levels at picking is also pretty unique. German whites are incredibly long-lived, and great food wines because of the acidity. German vintners are growing the grapes at the outer edge of where you are able to get grapes to ripen.” Hovland recommends the following wines for those who want to try German wines but don’t know where to start:
FOR A CASUAL MEAL: Mosel—2008 Dr. L. Riesling
Made with purchased, early-harvested grapes, this wine still possesses the elegant and racy acidic style that the winery is known for. The wine has crisp hints of apple and mineral from slate soils, and is a great wine for the money.
FOR A FORMAL MEAL: Pfalz—2007 K. Darting Scheurebe
This wine jumps out of the glass—a highly aromatic, sweet alternative to riesling. The flavor is tangy, saline, ripe—a cross between a riesling and an unknown wild varietal. While a white grape, it also has a black currant, grapefruit and wet-stone aroma. The grape is harvested when fully ripe, and has some honeycomb and forest floor on the palate, with a bit of orchard fruit—especially apricot—and passion fruit, lavender and candied spice. The wine works well as an aperitif, and has a great balance of sweetness and acidity.
FOR DESSERT: Eiswein—2008 Bergmann Eiswein
Honeyed and grassy, this wine pairs well with nuts or cheese for dessert. There are some flint and petrol notes, typical of a wine from the Mosel region, but the ripeness leads back to honey as the dominant flavor, with a light citrus note.
Texas Wine Pairing for German Food
Gewürztraminer grapes have been cultivated for over a thousand years in Europe. The very best gewürztraminers are produced in Alsace, France. This is not a wine for the white-wine lover looking for subtlety—gewürztraminer is anything but subtle! Descriptors such as sexy, seductive, perfumey and smoky are generally used to profile this wine. The typical gewürztraminer lover—and it’s sometimes a case of love or hate with this wine—is a sensualist who seeks wines with bold, sassy, voluptuously fruity flavors that explode on the palate. Gewürztraminer is generally an off-dry wine, known to pair well with traditional German foods prepared with many of the same flavor components found in the wine, like cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. The name comes from the German gewürz, which means “spice.” The wine’s low acidity and residual sugar allow it to pair with the tangy, acidic flavors of sauerkraut, pickled beets and marinated cabbage. And its subtle nuance of smoke on the palate makes it a great match for smoked meats and sausages.
The gewürztraminer grape thrives in cooler climates and requires soil high in minerals—which Texas has in spades. Becker Vineyards, founded by Richard and Bunny Becker in 1992 outside Fredericksburg, has been producing an excellent gewürztraminer since 1998. The wine is produced from grapes grown at their Ballinger Vineyards near San Angelo, where the nights are cool and the soil is loaded with minerals.
Becker Vineyards 2009 Gewürztraminer
This is an excellent wine to pair with traditional German foods. True to the profile of an off-dry, Alsatian-style gewürztraminer, this wine has fruity aromas of apricot, peach and pear, and a hint of jasmine. On the palate, the wine exhibits flamboyant fruit with nuances of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, with a hint of smoke. The lingering finish calls to mind a tart Granny Smith apple. The moderate degree of residual sugar (5 percent) and low acidity mean that this wine pairs admirably with the meal featured in this story, with its spice notes and apple finish playing nicely off of each course, right through the apple-based, spice-laden dessert.