Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wagner's Hofbrau

Wagner’s Hofbrau
1726 W. Kathleen Ave.
Coeur d’Alene

Fleisch und Kartoffeln für einen König

An unexplainable mix of tension and excitement hung in the air as I waltzed into the new Wagner’s Hofbrau on West Kathleen in Coeur d’Alene. It wasn’t until I was nearly finished with my meal that I would clue in to the fact that I’d happened to pop in during the second hour of their very first day open. A retirement-aged couple arrived for lunch a while after me and asked the hostess for a booth no-one had sat in yet so they could “devirginize it.” That wasn’t the most appealing mind picture perhaps, but it prompted me to ask my waitress exactly when they’d officially opened for business. “Just today,” she smiled, “About an hour and half ago.” Given the high quality of the food and service, I have a feeling the fact that I was literally one of the first folks ever to dine there will give me deep bragging rights sometime in the future.

I’d learned the exciting news that our town was finally getting a genuine German restaurant a while ago after a friend of mine, scanning the Help Wanted section of the newspaper asked “What is a hofbrau anyway? Is it like a hot dog stand with sauerkraut and warm beer or what?” Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure myself so I did a bit of old fashioned Googling to find out. Apparently, back in the motherland, a hofbrauhaus was traditionally a government owned beer-brewing outfit which was established and patronized by German royals and statesmen. In other words, it was a place for the king and his court to fill their big ugly lidded steins with the best brew available and drink until they plopped. When the idea crossed over to the shores of America in the early 20th century, the introduction of food became an obvious necessity, and it seems foods were chosen for their ability to land with a thud in the tummy and do some serious soaking up of beer.

Maybe it was partly overcompensation for first-day jitters, but the staff at Wagner’s Hofbrau were pretty much treating their customers like visiting German royalty. I felt like King Ludwig III of Bavaria when I was so enthusiastically greeted at the door by a chatty hostess who was kind enough to walk me through the ordering process. Admittedly, I was slightly disoriented walking into a new place for the first time, and it was helpful to have a brief tutorial on what exactly I needed to do. Here’s the rundown; you grab a big brown tray and sidle up to the “reverse buffet”, wherein the chefs behind the line dish healthy portions of food for you instead of serving yourself. You can choose either a plate meal for ten bucks or go sandwich style for $7.50. The primary meat options are hand painted on a gigantic stylized wooden board that hangs mightily behind the counter like folk art from the old country. Daily specialty items are on offer as well, and the day I visited it was a truly scrumptious looking stuffed green pepper. You slide your brown tray down the line as they plate your choice of meat, sides and salad (and slices of irresistible homemade pies). At the end of the line, you’re given a drink cup and once you cash out, you pick a cozy corner to settle into and dig in.

The concept seems easy enough, but the divine, intense aromas rising forth from the food table and the mouth watering power of the visual aspect combine to make for some very tough decisions. Maybe they ought to come up with a special “indecisiveness plate” with a smidge of everything, because I literally wanted to taste it all. Splayed out behind the glass was a whole juicy turkey, a giant honey ham, a roast beef as big as my head, and trays filled with pastrami, corned beef, knockwurst and homemade sauerkraut. Sides include coarsely mashed potatoes, rice pilaf, and steamed veggies sprinkled with herbs. On the cold side of the line, options include fresh green salad, cucumber salad, mixed fruit, ambrosia, coleslaw, and of course that most German of salads, potato.

I stood there for a minute, slightly dazed at all the options before me, my growling stomach impatiently telling me to decide. The chefs behind the line were grinning ear to ear and glowing with the pride of a brand new parent; all this wonderful food was their baby and wasn’t it just so adorable? I opted to try the corned beef, a favorite of mine I rarely have the opportunity to indulge in. It tasted flawless, amazingly fresh, and its tender, melty texture leads me to believe it was cured right on site. So addictive, and if I could afford to eat the stuff everyday I would. The mashed potatoes were as good as the ones my mother makes on special holidays and they were slathered with the kind of rich old-style country chicken gravy I thought went extinct sometime during the heath craze of the Reagan years.

The bright orange and yellow colors of the steamed carrots and squash made it seem like Spring had sprung, despite the gloomy rainfall outside, and the creamy potato salad offered a sneak preview of Summer picnic weather. As if all that weren’t enough to send me to back to bed with a food coma, a huge bread roll and butter landed on my tray as well. Whew! The hostess must have read the look of astonishment on my face when I saw the huge portions piled on my plate. “Let me know if you need a to-go box or anything” she offered as I sat down to unwittingly devirginize a table and dig in.

Owners Bill and Roxanne Wagner are no newbies when it comes to serving up stick-to-your ribs German fare, having owned a popular Hofbrau in the business district of Fresno, California for many years. The newly constructed Tudor-style building seems like a blank canvas, with subtle Bavarian-style touches but minimal décor, save for a lone glassy-eyed stuffed deer head and an elaborately carved cuckoo clock.

I can’t imagine any reason that Wagner’s Hofbrau won’t win over the hearts and tummies of the North Idaho meat-and-potatoes crowd, and when they start arriving in droves, they’ll have plenty of space with room for nearly 150 diners and a banquet facility. Additionally, there are stools up at the impressively massive beer and wine bar, where they’ll eventually be serving both draught and bottled imports and domestics and a variety of fine wines. My only disappointment was that they didn’t have a couple of my favorite German dishes on offer, Spatzle (soft think noodles) and Weiner Schnitzel (breaded, fried veal cutlet). A minor complaint and I have a hunch they’ll be featuring these kinds of things as daily specials. After such a fantastic initial experience, I’ll be back as often as possible to check and see.


OrangeTV said...

From Huckleberries Online posting of this column:

Would a married German woman who works at one of those places be called a "hofbrau hosfrau"?
Posted by Idaho escapeE | 22 Mar 2:26 AM

I lived in Germany for a few years and had many opportunities to enjoy the food there, including at hofbraus.

My favorite dish was always weinerschnitzel and spaezel, which OTV says this new place doesn't have. As soon as they do, I'll make a special trip to check them out.

I remember the German-American Club (?not sure of the name?) in downtown Spokane a number of years ago. There was a good German restaurant there.
Posted by Ciaobino | 22 Mar 8:59 AM

Walked in there the other day to see if it was indeed a German restaurant. Unfortunately, it is an eatery with a German name and maybe a touch of Bavarian decor. I would not really call it a German restaurant. I lived in Germany for 5 years and my expectations were quite high. I was hoping for something like the Rhinelander in Portland. Nonetheless, it does seem to be a nice deli-style with just enough sauerkraut to fool some into believing their name. Sorry folks, this is not the real deal.
Posted by John Martin | 22 Mar 9:32 AM

Yea, that all sounds good, but what we really want to know is how were the German pastry selections?

And don't break out hearts and say they don't have any...
Posted by dan of the county | 22 Mar 9:35 AM

I lived in Fresno, CA a LONG time ago.
A while back my sis sent me a newspaper clipping about the restaurant there being torn down. It had been there forever, seems like. The clipping noted they were building one here. Haven't tried it yet, but plan to soon.
Posted by reddy | 22 Mar 10:31 AM

Great I have been looking for German food fix alternatives this sounds great. Good write up Orange
Posted by daug gone | 22 Mar 9:55 PM

How about Daanan's Deli out on Prairie Ave.? Their Oktoberfest serves up some real decent food.
Posted by Joan E. Harman | 23 Mar 7:29 AM

I don't know. You can't beat the wienerschnitzel at the Rhinelander. We still miss Edelweiss (used to be on Howard, downtown Spokane).
Posted by shinie | 23 Mar 9:59 AM

Well, first, a thank you to the Wagners, for having the gumption to invest in such a high-risk, labor-intensive venture in our area. Now I’ll wait to see if they get more adventurous with the menu. I don’t object to what the restaurant IS, a pleasant enough cafeteria with ok food, friendly and energetic staff, fast service, and quite reasonable prices But I was disappointed in what it ISN’T, i.e. anything close to my concept of a “German” restaurant.

Granted, it’s been a while since I chowed my way through both the lowlands and the mountainous areas of Germany, and even more years since I lived near Pennsylvania Dutch neighborhoods and was lucky enough to be invited to dinner. But even here in North Idaho we have many good cooks with German backgrounds who give in to my shameless hints (ok, whines) and stir up a batch of rouladen or potato sausage with spatzle or weinkraut, or potato dumplings and rotkohl (I’m swooning.) Stereotypical, maybe, but then aren’t restaurants with names in non-English languages expected to have stereotypical menus?

I’m hoping that the numbers coming through the doors on opening weekend, clearly drawn by the ethnicity, will cheer the Wagners on toward occasional sauerbraten or Jagerschnitzel. Saturday’s “special” was turkey a la king!

I’ll suggest for now 2 small things that would have enhanced my “experience” and certainly wouldn’t be budget breakers: (1) offer something other than French’s screaming yellow mustard to go with the wurst. I expected some good German brown mustard to be on the table, right there beside the salt and pepper, and (2) consider color when planning the menu. I was served white sausages snuggled up to white kraut and white potatoes, all served on a white plate. Yes, there was that thin faint rosy streak of red onion hiding In the smashed potatoes, but think of the stunning contrast a few steamed carrots could have made. I saw that there were a few other items (green beans for example) that were choices for those who had the roast beef, but once I opted for the wurst, I didn’t have options other than the white “sides” till I got to the salad area. Hmm. Maybe the screaming yellow was intended to serve as the eye candy.

I’m not giving up yet; I’ll go back eventually to see how things go, and I’ll listen to what friends might say, but for now I’ll rely on desperation whining for the occasional Germanic fare.
Posted by florined | 23 Mar 2:59 PM

I'll give them a while to get started serving real Germanic foods made by cooks with Germanic background:

YES,YES,YES........Bring on the
Posted by Eagle Keeper 44 | 23 Mar 5:52 PM

Anonymous said...

We just ate at this restaurant, and the food was wonderful. I've was truly impressed with how clean the restaurant was. There is a meeting room for groups, a bar, and a nice area for family dining.
We'll be sure to go back and to tell our friends about this wonderful restaurant.

uno said...

I am very fond of German food. especially the food. I will try to make at home. thank you, your articles are very helpful