Barth's Has Der Real Wiener Schnitzel
An appropriate and common response to being served a schnitzel plate at Barth's is to gasp and exclaim, "Oh, my God!" The picture menus will leave you unprepared for the behemoth you just ordered. The acreage of this pounded-thin, butter-fried piece of breaded meat equals the area of a medium pizza. You'll marvel at the expanse; there isn't any part of a pig or a chicken that could be stretched this wide or this thin—or is there? It's an unreasonable amount of food made even more ridiculous when you realize the plate includes two sides. Show me a person able to polish off this dish on his own, and I'll show you not a man, but a remorseless eating machine. To-go boxes are inevitable. It is, therefore, wiser to share . . . unless you plan on taking on the so-called "Schnitzel Challenge," which, to my knowledge, has yet to be done.
Despite the magnitude, the schnitzels here are gentle giants. They eat greaseless and light, meant to be drizzled with lemon juice. A truck-stop diner's chicken-fried steak a quarter the size would feel like a ton in comparison. These schnitzels seem to float. In parts, the breading clings to the meat like stucco; in others, it puffs up like a half-deflated balloon. And every inch surrenders at the mere suggestion of a fork.
And that's just the base model of schnitzel. Smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce, it's the jaegerschnitzel. The one with a Parmesan-bread crumb crust, tomatoes and mozzarella is appropriately dubbed the Italian schnitzel. The mushroom-paprika-sauce-topped schnitzel is the zigeunerschnitzel, and the cordon bleu, more Swiss than German, is stuffed with ham and cheese. Haven't had breakfast? The Bauern-schnitzel adds sunny-side-up eggs and bacon on top, as though the schnitzel were pretending to be a buttermilk pancake. And last but not least, there's Wiener schnitzel, a title saved for the crème de la crème—the version that uses veal instead of pork or chicken. And no, the name has never had anything to do with the American hot-dog chain.
This and the rest of the German dishes are for those unafraid of celebrating meat. Homemade Nuernberger sausages rest atop mountains of sauerkraut. The rouladen is a rolled-beef cigar in which skirt steak is stuffed with bacon, onions and pickles. The hirtenspiess, a shish-kebab-like skewer with pork, onions, peppers and sausage, is as thick as an arm. Rich in both protein and tradition, meals at Barth's also exhibit alcohol-absorbing properties—a good side effect since you're almost expected to drink fat, sweaty steins of Bitburger pilsner, Hofbrau hefeweizen and other indigenous brews as if it were Oktoberfest.
And what better for meat and beer than a side of potatoes, either as standard fries, a German potato salad or sliced into coins that were roasted until a sleek sheen of grease appeared. Still, get the red cabbage. Ask what the chefs do to the vegetable, and the reply will be "If we told you, we'd have to kill you." This is usually enough to convince most people, who will order the coarsely minced, melting, soggy mound and guess that a braise in wine is probably involved.
Save the bread dumpling and the sauerkraut as sides until you move on to the sauerbraten, two thick wheels of beef pot roast simmered with vinegar, juniper berries and bay leaves. The bread dumpling—a chewy, dense-as-meat-loaf globe—can and should be used to sop up that gravy. And the sauerkraut all but merges seamlessly into the sauce, joined by a common denominator of tartness.
Shared among all who come here is a love of German culture. In the square, sparse room and above the polka music, it is typical to hear the mother tongue spoken in spurts more for novelty than necessity. You eavesdrop as complete strangers share Deutschland travel tips and chat about King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose visage—with a very bushy black beard—hangs on a dominant painting.
And everyone, even after having consumed massive portions of meat and spaetzle, manages to save some room for the German cheesecake. Owner Rene Barth, a native of Weissenhorn, is right to be proud of it. He begins the recipe by making his own quark, a homemade cheese that takes two days to meticulously strain through cloth. The finished cheese is served in lieu of butter for the complimentary pretzel rolls, but its true purpose is to be transformed into the cake, offered up as a not-too-sweet, not-too-rich, slightly grainy wedge that's dolloped with cream and feels as much like edible hospitality as his schnitzels feel like a dare.
This review appeared in print as "Der Real Wiener Schnitzel: Barth's gigantic servings will make you loosen your lederhosen."
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