Germans have a reputation for hard work, efficiency and stoic dispositions. But get the average German to a Bierhall and you see an entirely different person: a loud, wise-cracking, beer maid-groping soccer fanatic who drinks enormous steins of hopsy brews.
But bierhalls aren't just about rowdy drunkenness. There's also the greasy tradition of German food. Like the English, Germans get a bad rep: Their cuisine is viewed as just varied combinations of sausage, cheese and bread. Simply put, this is true -- but Gott in Himmel, what combinations!
Lauded as Pittsburgh's leading authentic bierhall, the Penn Brewery is more than just a storehouse for Pilsner tanks; it's also the city's best showcase of what can be accomplished with sausage, cheese and bread. Sit down at one of the long, hardwood tables, loomed over by the flags of German-speaking nations, and order up a pre-meal BierkÃ¤se -- a rich pudding of whipped sharp cheddar and cream cheese flavored with Penn Pilsner; eaten with crackers, this is a flavorful way to convert the most skeptical Deutschophobe.
Follow it up with a GrÃ¼nersalat (green salad), the house specialty that combines mixed greens, chopped tomatoes, red onions, cheddar-jack cheese, bacon and toasted almonds. Like a lot of German cooking, the green salad is a bittersweet mix -- balancing saltiness with saccharine -- which ably complements the finer beer selections.
The Brewmaster's steak with dark beer sauce and the "Chicken Cordon Brew" are all mouth-watering (and for the aspiring connoisseur, the chef has supplied beer recommendations for each entrÃ©e). But the real winner here is the Schnitzel -- breaded cutlets of turkey or veal. The Vienna-style Wiener Schnitzel is bathed in demi-glace and cream; the turkey's a slightly more humanitarian choice, but if you don't have any qualms about eating baby cow, the veal melts in your mouth like the butter it's sautÃ©ed in.
Authentic or not, the Penn Brewery has taken some exciting liberties with its menu, including some items that aren't exactly German specialties -- like seafood. Grilled salmon steaks and 5-ounce blue crab cakes aren't exactly the pride of the North Sea, but man, do they tempt the palette here. Plus, in the spirit of an evolving -- and slightly healthier -- Germany, the kitchen offers vegetarian entrÃ©es and lighter sandwiches, from portabella con penne to the turkey schnitzel sandwich. It's a nice alternative to, say, the "Butcher's Plate," a heaping platter of cured and sliced meats, served with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut.
And if the high school cafeteria didn't overload you as a child, there are plenty of favorite sides: coleslaw, applesauce, potato salad, French fries and garden rice pilaf.
Of course, good German food is like good Chinese take-out: You could eat it anywhere. So what makes dining at the Penn Brewery so exceptional? Is it the atmosphere, with its visible brewing vessels, imported from Germany, and the auburn lighting that reflects like autumn dusk on the inlaid wood? Is it the Brewery's epic Oktoberfest celebration, when thousands of visitors pour in from all over the region? Or is it that every Wednesday, like Swiss clockwork, the Grkman Duo sets up its accordion and upright bass and plays an entire evening's worth of Alpine ballads? Frankly, we think it's all of the above. Because deep down inside, no matter who you are, you know you've always wanted to try a pair of Lederhosen.
And yes, after a hearty, Atkins-friendly diet of meat and dairy products, there's nothing better than Penn's Ãœber-wide selection of dunkels, pilsners, lagers and bocks. The biggest seller of late is the Penn Weizen, an award-winning, Bavarian-style wheat beer that's available year-round and has won consistent accolades for nearly a decade.
So one of these Wednesdays, pull up a stool, grab a heady lager and slice through a Schnitzel. Your arteries may regret it, but man, will it taste good. Zum Wohl!