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By Eating Our Words
Alfredo's European Grillon Montrose near Westheimer is a BYOB restaurant. So the four of us have brought a six-pack of Spaten. We were advised to bring enough to offer one to the owner. Alfredo Taurisano gladly accepts the brew but talks nonstop the whole time we're there.
At first, he seems innocent enough. Sure, he's a little full of himself, but the handsome young half-German, half-Italian has a pretty good rap. He moved here from Cologne, Germany, a few years ago. When he realized that the Bayou City lacked the kind of snack bars that serve bratwurst and fries on street corners all over Germany, he decided to open Alfredo's European Grill. "It's not a real restaurant," he explains. The lack of table service and a minimal menu allow him to offer tasty, casual German fare at fast-food prices.
When he opened, Taurisano assumed most of his customers would get their food to go, which is why the dining room is sparingly furnished with seven tables and 24 folding chairs in a space that easily could hold many more. Taurisano brags that business is so good, he's planning to put a patio in the parking lot. But why doesn't he add a few tables to the dining room in the meantime?
Bratwurst sandwich combo: $5.49
German sample platter: $18.49
Curry wurst: $7.49
Jaeger wurst: $8.49
Bratwurst plate: $7.99
Kid's bratwurst plate: $3.99
My first visit to Alfredo's was at lunchtime. I got a bratwurst sandwich with fries on the side to go. The grill-marked bratwurst had a great, firm texture and wonderful, spicy flavor. The hard roll was decent and stuffed with an abundance of imported German sauerkraut. But the sandwich had architectural problems. The bratwurst stuck out both ends of the roll by a couple of inches.
The problem of the long sausage on the round bun was solved long ago in the German meat markets of Central Texas, where sausage sandwiches are an old tradition. You simply cut the link in half, both lengthwise and through the width, and pile the resulting flat sausage slices on the round bun, along with onions and pickles. But since Alfredo Taurisano believes that he introduced German sausage to Texas, he's unlikely to learn anything from his German-Texan predecessors.
"Our sausage is ten times better than anything you have over here," he rants as the four of us try to order dinner. I've already eaten his bratwurst, which is great. But I can think of ten sausages in Texas I like more, including the venison-jalapeño sausage I just made with my deer meat. But that's all right -- bravado is a trait you admire in a sausage man. Who wants to eat sausage that's billed as just average?
We're standing at the walk-up counter, looking over the menu items, trying to order as much of a variety as possible. But there seems to be only one sausage served at this restaurant. The Nurenberger bratwurst is made by a company that was started by Taurisano's grandfather, he explains. Too bad he doesn't carry any of his grandfather's other sausages.
Despite the dearth of selections, Taurisano has color copies of the restaurant's dishes taped to the counter. He points to each as he recounts in excruciating detail what little there is to explain. The sausage and the homemade schnitzel, in a variety of poses, make up the snack bar's entire menu.
Alfredo's schnitzel is a thin, tenderized pork loin coated with bread crumbs and fried. He does an excellent job of turning it out so it tastes completely greaseless. "I wish I could buy schnitzel here, but I have to make it. You don't have any real butchers like we have in Germany; you only have Sam's Club and places like that," Taurisano tells us. There are well over a hundred meat markets in the SBC Greater Houston Yellow Pages. Maybe Alfredo can't read English?
When you order Wiener schnitzel, you get the meat topped with lemon juice. If you put mushroom gravy on the same fried meat, it's Jaeger schnitzel. Douse it with "gypsy sauce," a tomato-and-pepper sauce that might remind you of creole sauce, and you've got Zigeuner schnitzel.
Taurisano points to a disgusting photo that looks like exhibit A in a botched-surgery lawsuit. Two bratwursts are covered with blood-red ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder. This is billed on the menu as curry wurst. If you've ever eaten the fantastic spicy curry wurst that Berlin made famous, I'd advise you to skip Alfredo's version.
The best idea, Taurisano tells the four of us, is to just get two combination plates, each of which is designed to serve two people. The German sample platter includes three sausages and a schnitzel with several sides. If you order some mushroom gravy and gypsy sauce on the side and try them with the fried meat, you've sampled all three schnitzels. Get one plate with mashed potatoes and the other with french fries, and you'll have tried nearly everything on the menu.
The two samplers come on silver-colored platters that cover a huge expanse of the vinyl tablecloth. We divide the sausages and schnitzels among our four plates and dig in. On my plate, the thick, bland brown gravy with mushrooms combines with the mashed potatoes in a comforting and familiar Middle European mush that gently lubricates the Jaeger schnitzel. The gypsy sauce, which is supposed to be spicy, has a meek canned-tomato flavor. The imported German sauerkraut is squishy. It doesn't hold a candle to the crisp, homemade sauerkraut at the Russian General Store on Hillcroft. The generic red cabbage also taste canned. And the potato salad, which features chunks of potatoes in an oversweetened sauce of mayonnaise and yellow mustard, contains a few flecks of pimiento and little else.
"I had a meal in a restaurant the other night that cost $45. All the food came out of the microwave -- I could tell," Taurisano says. "Here you spend $45 and feed four people, and the food is all fresh."
I can't help laughing at the guy as I choke down a mouthful of his awful industrial potato salad. What does he mean, fresh?
"Did you make this potato salad?" I ask him pointedly.
"No, I bought it from a German wholesale food company," he says. "It's imported from Germany."
"So are German cockroaches," I want to tell him, but I doubt he'd get the joke.
Alfredo's only dessert, a black forest cake, comes premade from the same German specialty wholesaler that provides most of the rest of the menu. It's very moist and chocolatey, although it's obviously a mass-produced commercial product. There's nothing wrong with stocking a German snack bar with high-quality prepared foods from a German wholesaler. But there's something weird about bragging about how fresh these packaged foods are.
Alfredo Taurisano goes on at great length about his plans to add real homemade German dishes like dumplings and rouladen and sauerbraten to his menu someday. But while actually cooking from scratch may be a distant goal, Taurisano already has expansion plans. Once his bratwurst-and-fries concept electrifies the city, he plans to teach us about Italian food. Because, as he puts it in his Ahnuld-like accent, "Dere are no real Italian restaurants in Houston."
"What about Da Marco?" one of my dining companions asks him. Of course, Taurisano has never heard of the place.
"Is this guy perpetuating the obnoxious German stereotype, or what?" my German-American dining companion mutters on her way to the car.
German cuisine holds little appeal for most Americans. Like English food, it has the reputation of being heavy, bland and monotonous, which, for the most part, it is. But thanks to our German heritage, Texans have a soft spot for the stuff. We are especially weak for sausage. And gravy. And we recognize that schnitzel is vaguely related to chicken-fried steak. So we love it too. Especially smothered in gravy.
The German sample platter at Alfredo's European Grill provides a bounteous helping of these lovable German comfort foods at a ridiculously low price. And then there's the Thursday-night special, during which the humongous platter that usually sells for $18.49 goes for under $11. Which means you can stuff two people to the gills for five bucks and change apiece.
Bring your own beer, and the whole thing gets even cheaper. But let me give you a few tips on how to handle Alfredo: Pick a table that's out of his line of sight so he can't talk to you from behind the counter. And don't buy him a beer or ask any questions.