Fit for a King
Check out pictures of the colorful interior of King's Biergarten in our slideshow.
From a distance, the polka music galumphing out into the night air from the open-air patio at King's Biergarten could easily be confused with banda, conjunto or norteño music — all styles of Mexican music deeply influenced by late 19th-century German settlers in Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Nuevo León. Interestingly enough, the turreted and stucco'd building that houses King's Biergarten clearly used to be a Mexican restaurant in its former life. The quaintly odd tableau also features an attached car wash that doubles as extra parking at night and a sprawling, mostly covered biergarten that overlooks a small bayou out back.
Johann Sitter, an Austrian who emigrated to Texas in 1994, owns that car wash next door — also named King's. Over the course of a few years, Sitter took the old Mexican joint and reverse-engineered it into a German-Austrian restaurant worthy of his homeland.
It's no secret that Texas cuisine and culture has been strongly molded over the centuries by both Mexicans and Germans. Yet while Mexican food (or at least Tex-Mex) is omnipresent in Houston, authentic German food is far more difficult to find. Sure, you can get a gravy-covered chicken-fried steak with its roots in Austrian schnitzel, or grill some brats outside during Texans game days. But outside of a couple of places — Rudi Lechner's on the far west side or Charivari in Midtown — getting a good zwiebelrostbraten or some homemade spaetzle is nearly impossible.
Thankfully, there's King's Biergarten. And unlike the more demure Rudi Lechner's or the white-tablecloth Charivari, King's Biergarten is all about fun. It's impossible not to have a good time there, whether over a liter of Spaten Oktoberfest — beers are sold, in true Germanic style, in liters or half-liters — and some sausages while watching the weekend polka bands, or simply enjoying a well-battered piece of Wiener schnitzel with a side of lush red cabbage.
King's Biergarten is not Johann Sitter's first run at the restaurant business. He owned the popular Schmatz down in League City back in the late 1990s, a restaurant that specialized in German tapas. The word "schmatz" means something like a loud kiss, or an appreciative smack of the lips in Sitter's Austrian dialect. And these little lip-smacking bites were an interesting twist on the typically heavy-portioned food, even if the restaurant itself didn't last.
You'll find evidence of those schmatzes in Sitter's new menu at King's Biergarten, where an appetizer of Lumberjack Bread makes for the perfect bite-size accompaniment to a few liters of beer and some friends. Small rectangles of rye bread are topped with thick slices of smoked pork loin, slivers of cornichons, whole-grain mustard and a dab of mayonnaise. A ramekin of fresh, hot horseradish comes in the middle of the spread, and its usage is highly recommended. You can always cool the burn with some Warsteiner.
Equally appealing is the housemade Liptauer spread, the kissing cousin to those addictive cheese balls your favorite aunt brings to Christmas each year. Liptauer is actually Hungarian, in keeping with Austria's heady lean toward the more Eastern end of European cuisine (rather than the more Germanic or Western), but is equally popular in Austrian wine bars as it is in its native Hungary. Cream cheese is sharpened up with plenty of Hungarian paprika, grainy mustard, capers, cornichons and sour cream, the paprika turning the entire creation a soft, cheerful orange color. While the Liptauer spread is good on the slices of baguette that accompany a dish of it, I recommend ordering the huge, hot German pretzel instead and having what could possibly be the best bar snack of your life.
In fact, King's Biergarten functions as much as a bar as it does a restaurant. But unlike other combo packages that lean too heavily toward one or the other, King's straddles that line nicely. If you just want to have a flight of difficult-to-find German beers, take in some college football and eat a pretzel, you can do that. If you want to have a nice meal out with friends and family, King's can do that for you, too.
For those occasions, you'll want to explore the "Plates" and "Vienna Specialties" side of the menu. That's where you'll find dishes that truly make King's Biergarten worth the drive to Pearland, regardless of where you reside in the greater Houston area. And that's where you'll find dishes like the zwiebelrostbraten, a comfort food staple in Austria.
From the moment that the zwiebelrostbraten hit the table on my first visit, the thick scent of fried onions and well-seared beef was all-consuming. It smelled of childhood and happiness, even though my own childhood was devoid of any sirloins topped with fried onions in this particular style. Yet it's familiar because of its basic ingredients: a thick cut of steak, gravy made from drippings and butter, caramelized and crispy onions, a side of simply roasted potatoes. These things are easy for a Texan palate to appreciate, in the same way that a plate of schnitzel is somehow recognizable even if you've never had one before.
King's schnitzel isn't made with veal (and, strictly speaking, doesn't have to be). You can choose between chicken and pork, but the latter makes for a far more tender and flavorful dinner, the softly brined pork in its crispy batter parting easily under a knife. Although there's no cream gravy for this fried "steak," you'll want to squirt a few lemons across the top and let the citrus juices brighten up that crunchy batter before digging in. Or go whole hog and order it "hunter style," with a generous topping of Jaeger sauce, a white wine reduction thick with sautéed mushrooms and freshly ground black pepper. Sides of Austrian potato salad and spaetzle are recommended here so as not to overwhelm the schnitzel. Although the bacon-flecked potato salad has a slight vinegar bite to it, the softly crisped, pan-fried little egg noodles are tender and comforting.
The sausages, too, make for cozy food on a fall night. And just in time for Oktoberfest, too, where at King's Biergarten you can very nearly replicate the entire Munich experience — sans the airfare.
The traditional sausage of Oktoberfest (of course there's a traditional sausage of Oktoberfest) is Weisswurst, a delicate sausage not often found in Houston. It's made of ground pork and veal, and — true to its name — is very nearly white in color. Seasoned with parsley, lemon, cardamom and ginger, the light, herbal flavor is miles away from what we traditionally associate German brats with: meaty, swaggering, primal things that taste of charred flesh and victory.
At King's, you can get your Weisswurst on its own or let it share a plate with some of its huskier companions: a Polish sausage with a smoky, spicy kick or a grilled bratwurst with a sharp-edged bite to it from the fresh onions and garlic that go into the ground pork mix. It's endless plates of sausages like these that you'll see in great quantity, trotting out on the Wurst Platters or the Oktoberfest Sampler plates, if you visit while Oktoberfest is still in full swing through October 30. On Monday nights, there's a strongman competition to see who can hold a liter of beer aloft for the longest amount of time, while weekend nights see live music outside in the rustic, rambling biergarten.
You can also indulge in enormous, celebratory specials like the schweinsstelze, a crispy pork shank that's large enough for two, served with pork dumplings, ham-studded sauerkraut, red cabbage and King's housemade apple horseradish sauce. It's a sight to behold, the nearly foot-high shank landing with a clatter on the wooden tables like the centerpiece in a Viking feast, and it's a wonder the waitresses can even lift the thing with one hand.
The things I've seen those waitresses carry would do a Munich Oktoberfest girl proud: King's has an incredibly adept and adroit staff of young women in somewhat skimpy dirndls who can haul beer with the best of them. Liters land swiftly and without a drop spilled, while huge plates are delivered quick and hot and always with a huge smile. And throughout every service, Sitter himself — along with wife Megan and son Phillip — is always watching the crowds to make sure his little slice of Austria is running smoothly. You'll notice him chatting with patrons and running food, always dressed in his signature lederhosen and smiling broadly. He looks happy here, as at home in Texas as generations of Austrian and German immigrants before him.
And on cool nights during Oktoberfest when the polka band is in full swing and the sausages are flying out of the kitchen with the swoosh of a dirndl skirt, you can find Sitter leading the customers in "Der Prosit," a traditional German drinking song that mimics the sounds of cuckoo clocks like the ones hanging in the entrance to King's Biergarten: "Zicke zacke zicke zacke hoi hoi hoi! Prost!"
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