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Roll Out the Barrel

Hackemack's is a barrel of fun

I've harbored a weird fondness for small-town German restaurants ever since one in Marble Falls turned out the best Wienerschnitzel I've had outside Austria or Germany. So when I came across a billboard for Hackemack's Hofbrauhaus in New Ulm (that's Uh-lum, in local parlance), I had to investigate. It's popular but expensive, warned a resident, who grumbled about the audacity of charging $11.95 for an entree.

An off-hours reconnaissance mission cinched my interest. The chalet at the end of a gravel driveway didn't just make my jaw go slack. It triggered the kinesthetic equivalent of an aroma stirring dormant childhood memories. My body automatically lurched at a picture I hadn't seen since living in southern Europe in the 1970s: steep-pitched gables, antlers under the peak, window boxes with heart cut-outs, wooden patio tables sporting Spatenbrau umbrellas. This stucco building could just as easily have stood in rural Bavaria as off a Central Texas farm road. The question wasn't whether I'd repeat the drive; it was how soon. I did, within the week.

Was the food worth a 190-mile round trip? Not really. But the totality of the experience was. Hackemack's is an absolute find, combining the communal seating and boisterousness of a beer hall with the compact coziness of a Gaststatte. The happy debris of cultural collision envelops the single dining room, which is cluttered with gimme caps, Tyrolean embroidery, beer steins, framed NASA photographs and German government-issue travel posters from the late 1960s. Everywhere I looked, something made me gasp. On a high corner shelf stood a mug shaped in the head of King Ludwig II, inches away from a panorama of Neuschwanstein, the faux medieval castle he built after our Civil War. Stuffed behind the sound equipment on the performer's platform (calling it a stage strains the definition) was a chart for "Schnitzelbank," a corny old sing-along that usually gets resuscitated only by the likes of Sid Caesar.

The high-density theme applies as well to customers, who sit elbow to elbow at long tables covered in red-checkered tablecloths. There's barely room to maneuver between tables, much less dance, but that didn't stop a couple of women at the table next to mine from indulging in a little Cotton-Eyed Joe. The place draws large groups parked for the long haul (several anniversary celebrations were acknowledged during my stay); if your party numbers less than four, be prepared to share a table.

Like the dining room, Hackemack's kitchen puts a decidedly Texan spin on a German theme, and in fact, the menu specifically disavows any pretense of authentic cooking. Cheeseburgers, onion rings, steaks and deep-fried seafood take up almost as much room as the roster of German specialties.

Still, the American items hardly deflect interest from the focus cuisine, which is described plate by plate, with careful explanations of the German names. From sausages and smoked pork loin to smothered cutlets, a stick-to-your-ribs heartiness pervades the offerings.

Just as the menu warns, the entrees' recipes do stray from homeland standards. The sauerbraten ($12.95) lacks the pervasive vinegary bite that often defines the dish, but timidity is not necessarily a bad thing. So what if the marinade's restrained? The roast beef is wonderfully tender and dripping with a thick gravy that epitomizes comfort. The Wienerschnitzel ($11.95) bears little resemblance to anything I've had on any continent. The underlying cutlet is pork, thick and resilient, rather than pounded into tenderness. The makeup of the breading completely eluded me; reddish-brown and grainy, it is more like a dusting than a crust. Palatable, yes, but not elegant and delicate, in true Viennese style.

There's little departure from authenticity, though, in the choice of the side dishes that accompany the dinners. The exception is the inclusion of a dinner salad, hardly a common item in central and southern Germany, and certainly not with creamy all-American dressings. The rest of the array is tried and true: cooked potatoes swimming in a glutinous gravy fit for dumplings, a ramekin of shredded, cooked red cabbage, ladles of sauerkraut (which, for all its timidity, may as well have come from a can) and, resting atop the works, a slice of rye bread.

Everything begs to be washed down with a strong dark beer. In this department, Hackemack's menu doesn't disappoint in the slightest. The knowledgeable selection is largely from Munich breweries, particularly Paulaner and Spaten, and includes the taste-bud-pummeling Salvator and a wheat beer that fills a half-yard glass -- not often found in Houston, much less out in a field.

Not half as impressive are the desserts. Hackemack's Black Forest cake ($2.70) enjoys all the complexity and interest of a Sara Lee creation, but at least the strudel ($3.95) comes through. Warm and sugary and firm of crust, the a la mode version has the added delight of a toothpick skewering the ice cream to the strudel.

For connoisseurs of incongruity, however, the source of greatest pleasure is the entertainment. It comes from a duo named Simply German, who have a standing gig Friday and Saturday evenings except during Oktoberfest season. The night of my visit, only one of the performers was on duty, a young man with black lederhosen and a peaches-and-cream complexion who kept the crowd in a constant state of interest (and surprisingly often, participation) with an accordion-driven playlist of folk and beer-drinking songs, polkas and American popular standards. Shades of Lawrence Welk? Not by a long shot. Native Houstonian Jason Keepers careened across an absolutely wacky musical landscape without the slightest hint of irony. One minute he was singing in a respectable German accent and yodeling with ease and dead-on accuracy; the next he was leading a straight-faced and energetic sing-along of the Beverly Hillbillies theme.

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