1726 W. Kathleen Ave.
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.