Location: 2705 Water St., South Side. 412-224-2328 www.hofbrauhauspittsburgh.com
Hours: Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-midnight; Thu. 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $4-13; entrees $11-30
Atmosphere: German beer hall
Liquor: Full bar with site-brewed German beer specialties
In a ground-up redevelopment like SouthSide Works, the looming fear is kitsch. Those who meticulously maintain the neighboring historic district want the new to blend seamlessly with the old, but accomplishing that without cartoon buildings can be hard. Even harder is accommodating a theme restaurant in a tight-knit neighborhood with a history of its own. Out on the highway, in the asphalted interstices between malls, faux villas, pueblos, log cabins and thatched huts coexist in a boisterous free-for-all, their architecture itself advertising the food served within to speeding motorists. But in the historic South Side, life moves at a different speed.
So you can see where Hofbräuhaus Pittsburgh -- a licensee of the venerable 17th-century Munich beer hall -- might cause some concern. Designed to resemble a genuine German beer hall shipped in by barge, it's big and, well, cartoonish, overlooking the Mon. Stepping inside to be greeted by employees costumed in dirndls to the booming tones of oompah music doesn't do much to dispel the impression.
But we've been to Germany -- Angelique was born there -- and the truth is, Germany itself can be a bit cartoonish. The towns really are full of crooked half-timbered houses (many postwar reconstructions); village women do sometimes wear dirndls (without irony). And, Gott help us, Germans -- at least the ones we are fortunate to be related to -- do sit around the Biergarten singing boisterous songs to oompah music (including "Beer Barrel Polka"). So, absurd as it all was, it actually felt kind of familiar.
Certainly the Hofbräuhaus' atmosphere is congenial. The dining areas, including the "quiet" room without live music, ring with the din of hundreds of voices bouncing off the high, timbered ceiling, even on a Monday night. This may be the only bar in Pittsburgh without TVs. The long tables in the main hall encourage breaking bread (or pretzels) with strangers, while the expansive, graveled riverside terrace was built for beer-soaked socializing. Singing, even.
Just as the building honors its Bavarian progenitor, so does the heart of the menu, a full page of genuine German dishes, unapologetically listed under their German names. We mostly forwent the less-authentic appetizer list, preferring to share the entrée-sized wurst platter plus a starter of soft pretzels and Hofbräuhaus' signature "bier cheese." The pretzels were pleasingly irregular, crusty, chewy and dusted with sea salt. The cheese had the gooey, permanently melty texture of stadium nacho cheese, but with the subtly fermented tang of beer in its recipe.
In addition to the familiar brat, the wurst platter contained metterwurst and bierwurst. The former was a hearty, beef-filled sausage that was juicy and savory, the latter a more middling pork sausage, although Jason thought the meat had the richness of pork shoulder. Perhaps most impressive was the bratwurst. Far more finely ground and sophisticatedly seasoned than the ballpark staple, it had a mild, but not bland flavor, hinting at nutmeg. Servings of silky mashed potato and flavorful, almost creamy sauerkraut rounded out an excellent platter.
Angelique ordered a German menu favorite, schnitzel -- that's pork cutlet -- cordon bleu. The cutlet arrived topped, rather than stuffed, with ham and cheese. The schnitzel consisted of the right cut of meat, pounded out and still moist, but the cheese was the same bier cheese served with the pretzels instead of the traditional sharp, nutty Swiss, and it was too mild to contribute much to the meaty, salty combo of ham and cutlet. On the other hand, the side vegetables, a colorful medley of sugar snap peas and orange and yellow carrots, were very good, obviously more than an afterthought.
Jason was ecstatic to see Schweinshaxe on the menu. The large shank of the pig, roasted with the cracklings left on, haxe is an indulgent dish rarely seen in the States. Sadly, it wasn't seen on this night, either -- the kitchen was out. Undeterred, Jason was on to other parts of the pig with Schweinebraten, a boneless roast. The meat was juicy and tender, but Jason took exception to the accompanying knödel. The large bread dumpling was virtually a caricature of the insulting idea that German food must be heavy and starchy. The bread itself was flavorful, but the baseball-sized dumpling was so dense that it could hardly take on any gravy.
An order of spätzle with cheese proved the disappointment of the night: doughy dumplings swimming in a bland dish of, you guessed it, bier cheese again. We realize that comparisons to a beloved family recipe featuring firm, fluffy dumplings tossed with Emmentaler and caramelized onions is unfair. But even by a lesser standard, this dish lacked both pleasing flavor and texture.
With some misgivings, we finished with the apple strudel, whose filling was not apple-y and whose crust was not crusty.
In terms of atmosphere, Hofbrähaus Pittsburgh has gotten so much right about the German beer-hall tradition. Yet the food too often showed that, when it comes to German food, cartoons only hint at the real thing.